Latest setback for transparency a stain on commissioners’ records

Since two commissioners desperately want collective bargaining sessions to be secretive, the logical question is why?

For the past three years, two Grays Harbor commissioners have chosen to block a vote that would have allowed taxpayers to determine whether their hard-earned dollars were actually being protected or frittered away during collective bargaining sessions with the unions representing county workers.

Commissioner Wes Cormier has been the one voice to stand up for transparency and openness. On all three occasions, however, his calls for a vote to open these meetings failed to get a second.

Since the remaining two commissioners desperately want these meetings to be secretive, the logical question is why? What goes on during these negotiating sessions they don’t want you to see? Which side benefits more from closed-door meetings, the city or the unions?

More to the point, is there a healthy adversarial relationship in the first place, or are the negotiations being conducted between unions on one side of the table and politicians who’ve accepted campaign contributions from unions on the other?

During July’s meeting, labor bosses attended from other counties and made their same tired, nonsensical arguments for why collective bargaining sessions should be exempted from public meeting laws that require all government activity be open to the people paying for it.

One thing has been made clear by the fierce opposition of the unions: Union leaders believe they have an advantage by negotiating in private.

If this is true, it follows that the commissioners siding with the union bosses believe this is a good thing.

Commissioner Vickie Raines, who has opposed transparency for the past three years, said, “I know what human nature is like, and I think that there are times when you need to have the doors closed so you can talk frankly about issues.”

This is pure sophistry. If one side or the other is behaving badly during the negotiations, it’s an argument for why the proceedings should be made public. After all, it’s the public’s money that’s being haggled over.

Cormier responded, “I ran on transparency, and that’s why I proposed it. For me, it’s about transparency in the (county’s) budget. Salaries and benefits make up 75 percent of our budget, and that is done behind closed doors. For me, all of the details, I think, need to be in public view.”

Cormier wanted to open the discussion for debate and give his colleagues an opportunity to defend their opposition to what the majority of taxpayers have called for.

However, according to the other two county commissioners, it is necessary to continue to negotiate the County budget behind the backs of taxpayers.

For the third consecutive year, two of Grays Harbor Commissioners, Raines and Ross have thumbed their noses at the rights and wishes of the public to make local government more transparent and accountable.

Union representatives argue they will have problems with “disruption” and “intimidation” from the public if negotiations are made public, but they have things backwards. Absent the moderating influence of public scrutiny, union intimidation is a much more likely possibility; and if our elected representatives capitulate to it, we have every right to know.

A 2017 Elway Research poll made it abundantly clear the majority of Washingtonians want transparency. Apparently, however, the voter’s wishes are not even open for debate with the Grays Harbor County commissioners.

As Washington State’s Open Public Meeting Act clearly states: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” (RCW 42.30.010)

Two-thirds of its commissioners have sent a clear message who pulls the strings in Grays Harbor County, and it’s not the taxpayers.

Matthew Hayward is outreach director for the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based think tank that has urged jurisdictions all over Washington to open collective bargaining sessions to the public.