Opening up jail negotiations would inform public

When will Thurston County start housing prisoners in the new $45 million Accountability and Restitution Center? Nobody knows, because opening the new jail depends on the outcome of negotiations with the county corrections officers’ union, which have been closed to the public.

For nearly four years, the ARC has sat empty. But it has cost the county – in addition to debt payments – about $500,000 per year to maintain a vacant facility.

Commissioners said in April that they were within weeks of closing a deal with the union to work modified 12-hour shifts. The county says it needs that concession to eliminate overtime and save enough money to hire the six or seven additional deputies necessary to open the ARC.

But almost two months later, there’s still no deal. In response to an enquiry, all County Manger Cliff Moore would say is “No deal yet. Still optimistic.” But other sources believe the matter will only be settled through binding arbitration

Taxpayers shouldn’t have to rely on conflicting reports about the status of negotiations leaked by persons who know or think they know what’s really going on. The people who paid for this jail have a right to know why a deal hasn’t been reached and who to hold accountable for the costly stalemate.

If Thurston County held these negotiations in open public meetings, taxpayers could decide whether either side isn’t acting in good faith.

Unfortunately, state and local governments have interpreted Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act to exclude negotiations with public sector unions. So the secrecy shrouding Thurston County’s efforts to open the new jail are repeated in similar situations all across the state.

The public is also shut out of the statewide labor contract talks now occurring between Gov. Jay Inslee and state workers. When those talks continue June 24, they will take place behind closed doors.

Union members, managers and the public would all benefit from observing the proceedings firsthand, without any filter.

Open public meeting laws in many other states require collective bargaining sessions to be held in public. States like Georgia, Minnesota, Florida, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, Texas and Oregon all require some degree of public access to negotiations.

According to testimony early this year on a state Senate bill that would have required public employee bargaining sessions to be open meetings, Oregon schools have negotiated in public for 15 years. Some states allow government negotiators to strategize in private sessions, but require actual bargaining sessions to be open to the public.

Those opposed to opening up the process fear that it would change the dynamic at the bargaining table. Instead of a safe place for frank discussions, individuals might see an opportunity to grandstand or pander for public support if sessions, rather than engage in serious negotiations.

That may be so, but after four years of bleeding tax dollars and unkept promises to open the jail, Thurston County taxpayers deserve to know more about what’s making this take so long.