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EDITORIAL: Time for transparency in collective bargaining

It’s an integral tenet of a healthy democracy that taxpayers have a right to see how the public sector spends their money. That’s the idea behind Nevada statutes promoting open government.

But there’s one important area where taxpayers remain in the dark — collective bargaining. Taxpayers may see the contracts, but only after union and government officials have held closed-door meetings to determine what will be in them.

The 500,000 residents of Washington state’s Spokane County had a similar problem. Salaries and benefits are the county’s biggest expenses, but taxpayers were shut out of labor deliberations. But last week the county approved a resolution allowing the public to view collective bargaining negotiations.

“Both taxpayers and employees deserve to be informed how they are being represented during collective bargaining negotiations,” the resolution read. “The appearance of secret deal-making will be eliminated by allowing public oversight (during) negotiations.”

Those concerns apply in Nevada, too. That’s obvious if you go to TransaprentNevada.com and look at how much some local government workers earn. For instance, more than 450 employees of the Metropolitan Police Department made more than $200,000 last year in total compensation. More than 1,150 employees of Clark County raked in $150,000 or more in total compensation in 2017.

Or you could look at the contracts themselves. After covering its expenses, the Clark County School District will give existing teachers 70 percent of new unrestricted revenue. It will also have to get the Clark County Education Association’s permission before spending any of that money on things such as incentivizing teachers to work in high-need areas. The contract is so one-sided that it looks as if district officials asked the union what it wanted and simply capitulated.

Full transparency would have allowed local taxpayers to see precisely how that happened. Knowing the public was watching might also have made the union temper its demands and led those on the other side of the table to represent the taxpayers more diligently.

In addition to Spokane County, several small jurisdictions in Washington have begun acting more transparently. “We’ve bargained in open public meetings, and it went fine,” said Rob Coffman, a commissioner in Lincoln County, Washington. “What does anyone have to hide from the public that we all serve?”

In both Washington and Nevada, union negotiations are exempt from statewide open meeting laws. But the law doesn’t require secret negotiations. Local governments have the ability to open them to the public. Nevada’s local governments should follow the example of Spokane County and allow members of the public to see what’s discussed before they get handed the bill.

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