The ongoing policy dispute between the Clark County Commission and the Metropolitan Police Department over public safety funding got very personal last week when board Chairman Steve Sisolak accused Sheriff Doug Gillespie of colluding with the officers’ union and an arbitrator to give officers pay raises.
Seldom does the voting public see one elected official openly accuse another elected official of unethical and potentially criminal behavior. Mr. Gillespie angrily denied Mr. Sisolak’s claims at a Friday news conference, and the allegations no doubt will add tension to the sheriff’s efforts to win passage of a sales tax increase that preserves department reserves. The commission already has rejected two sales tax proposals this month and will consider a third next month.
This escalating feud might cloud the tax debate, but it will serve a valuable purpose: It will bring into the open the opaque process of deciding public employee contracts and help make the case for more transparency in government collective bargaining.
Mr. Sisolak saw multiple red flags throughout the process that ultimately gave Las Vegas police officers richer health care benefits and 0.75 percent pay raises in each of the next two years. First, the sheriff agreed to use an arbitrator selected by the union’s counsel, not one from a list of seven candidates, as required by law. Second, Mr. Sisolak said the department’s final offer to the union exceeded the medical-contribution increase Mr. Gillespie was authorized to put forward. Third, the arbitrator’s incredibly brief decision did not initially comply with state law because it didn’t provide a fiscal impact or the justification for the award. Fourth, the written last best offers from both the department and the union, as well as the transcripts from the arbitration hearing, still aren’t available.
Mr. Sisolak’s concerns have merit. State law was ignored at multiple points in the bargaining process, each time in a way that served the police union’s interests. Whether Mr. Gillespie deliberately steered the contract talks toward the ultimate outcome is another matter entirely. Compensation increases stretch limited public safety resources even farther and limit the department’s ability to hire new officers — a publicly expressed priority for Mr. Gillespie.
However, if contract negotiations were open to the public and the press, Mr. Sisolak’s questions wouldn’t need answering. We’d already know about opening offers and counteroffers made in the bargaining process. We’d get to judge for ourselves whether the arbitrator favored one side or the other. Considering personnel costs consume nearly 90 percent of local government resources, it’s nothing short of insane that taxpayers are not allowed to witness the debate and deliberations that set those costs.
Having an unelected arbitrator who may not even live in the state decide such matters is bad policy to begin with. Elected officials, who answer to voters, should make the final call on employee contracts. But as long as an unaccountable arbitrator is deciding what we pay public employees, bargaining sessions should be subject to the open meeting law.