Open it up

Transparency is the essence of democracy. The public’s business must be conducted in public for taxpayers to maintain faith in the integrity of their governments.

And yet, in Nevada, the details of setting the largest single expense of government — the 70 to 80 percent of tax dollars that fund public employee salaries and benefits — are, by law, settled in secret. Any attempts to make this process public are condemned by the beneficiaries of silence: the public employee unions.

With the economy reeling, governments trying to claw their way out of budget deficits and private-sector workers and businesses praying for survival, it has never been more imperative for the public to know its elected officials are trying to get personnel costs under control.

Consider Clark County and its ongoing labor dispute with its Fire Department. Firefighters have benefited handsomely over the years from contracts negotiated in flush times. Rules regarding overtime, sick leave, premium pay and other sweeteners have been abused, allowing the average firefighter to more than double his base salary and take home as much as $200,000 per year in total compensation.

The county can’t afford rising costs anymore. It needs to bring costs down. Some county commissioners have been open about this reality, as they should be.

And now, with the county and the Fire Department closing in on binding arbitration to settle their next contract, the firefighters union is howling that elected officials … are making their concerns public! “Time and again we have had county commissioners trumpeting their positions in the newspapers day in and day out,” Ryan Beaman, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1908, wrote in an e-mail, complaining that communications with the fourth estate are intended to gain leverage in negotiations.

If Mr. Beaman is so distraught with the stubbornness of county leaders to call out and reject his union’s so-called “concessions,” then why doesn’t he open his union’s last, best offer to public inspection?

He won’t, not just because he doesn’t have to, but because he knows doing so would expose his membership to even more public criticism.

And that’s exactly why public employee collective bargaining is in such desperate need of reform. Signatures on an initiative requiring that collective bargaining negotiations for schools and local governments be conducted in public, subject to the open meeting law, are due to the state Nov. 9. If enough valid signatures are collected, the 2011 Legislature should pass the proposal.

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