As labor talks with the county’s public safety arm have ground to a halt, the Board of Supervisors are openly debating whether negotiations should be open to the public. Supervisor John Moorlach is leading the effort to open negotiations and openly criticized Todd Spitzer for holding private sessions with the deputies union in an effort to hammer out a deal.
The county recently sought to impose their “last, best and final” offer on the deputies union. That proposal would have imposed pension and other costs on deputies without a pay raise. While sounding good on paper, it would essentially have cost deputies up to 16 percent of their salary in take home pay. The previous contract imposed a tiered and measured implementation of costs designed to soften the blow on families. The stark approach imposed by the county this time around has left members of the deputies union fighting mad. And, they took that fight to court where a superior court judge ruled the county negotiator acted in bad faith.
Now, Moorlach is touting the idea of completely open negotiations – for labor, that is. In a recent missive to his constituents, Moorlach outlined his proposal to bring Costa Mesa’s COIN ordinance to the county. Essentially, the COIN (Civic Openness in Negotiations) ordinance would allow public review and input into the negotiation process, allowing everyone to see the fiscal impact of any proposals. Supervisors have already implemented several of the key points of COIN such as hiring an outside negotiator. Moorlach seeks to implement the entire ordinance.
As reported in the Voice of OC, union officials applaud the idea but say the ordinance should extend to all large contracts, including those with vendors the county does business with:
“Transparency should extend to members of the board of supervisors regarding contracts which they award to their political contributors, friends and lobbyists who bundle contributions from entities and individuals that are seeking public money,” said Nick Berardino, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association.
“They should disclose ex-parte discussions with lobbyists, contributors and other representatives seeking public money and political contributions received from those parties,” he added.
Of course, some Supervisors disagree. Shawn Nelson laughingly said that he is more worried about his own people than the contracts negotiated in the county. In an attempt to deflect the focus from contracts in general, Nelson said the issue was labor contracts because that’s what the people have to pay for and only find out the cost after the fact.
Berardino is correct, however. Nelson may foolishly think the public is only concerned with labor costs. There is a growing advocacy for complete openness in government where all contracts and their associated costs are discussed and debated in open forum. These costs, whether it is for labor or public/private contract, need to be publicized within the context of other issues such as recruitment and retention or cost of in-house versus contracting in order to get an accurate picture.
While COIN is a good start toward open and transparent government, it is far from ideal. Side discussions and most closed session discussions would not be covered. That leaves a huge information gap and a potential for inefficiency when questions regarding motive and reason remain unanswered. The public, while not wanting to dredge through the day-to-day business of government (I just want my potholes fixed), is growing concerned over costs and would welcome a bit of sunshine on the process. To infer it is none of their business, as some city and county officials have, is disingenuous.
While the county debates the pros and cons of COIN, it is time for the Tustin City Council to do the same. In past years, their efforts toward open and transparent government have left much to be desired. The antics of former councilmembers notwithstanding, the city has been lavish with it’s compensation toward executives and upper management while giving the rank-and-file employees the short end of the fiscal stick. Then there is the so-called Strategic Plan that is supposed to be a guideline for city staffers. The plan originally was supposed to contain an ethics component that never made it into the final draft (or, if it did, it’s buried under the bodies). In formulating the plan, Management Partners, outlined some serious issues mostly centering around poor community relations. Those, too, were never taken seriously.
Tustin city planners like to think of themselves as forward thinkers, ahead of the game. An ordinance focusing on open government that would leave little to interpretation in regard to fiscal and ethical policy, would go along way toward demonstrating that trust. Open negotiations in all labor talks, whether they be for executive managers or rank-and-file employees with public notice of proposals from either side should now be an essential part of any open government mandate. Likewise for public/private contracts where tax dollars are expended. Government, particularly at the local level, should not be run under a lampshade.