The State Worker

Public employee unions push bill on transparency; some say it does the opposite

State Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, said he expects labor-backed Gov. Jerry Brown to sign SB 331.
State Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, said he expects labor-backed Gov. Jerry Brown to sign SB 331. The Associated Press

A union-backed measure on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk would require that a handful of cities and one county disclose more information about outsourced services, but the bill’s opponents say its real aim is to keep union labor negotiations opaque.

The only point of agreement between the two sides is that Senate Bill 331 by Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, responds to a small but growing movement among local governments to adopt ordinances that reveal the details of labor negotiations normally kept under wraps.

The movement, known as Civic Openness in Negotiations, or COIN, sets labor-negotiation disclosure standards that vary from relatively minor to comprehensive. The most sweeping, such as that adopted by Orange County last year, require an outside negotiator to represent the governing body plus a full analysis and extended public disclosure of specific contract proposals before any negotiated agreement is approved by elected officials.

Under COIN, if a union’s opening position is a 10 percent raise for members and an employer counters with a 10 percent pay cut, both proposals would be made public. Currently, neither side is obligated to disclose intimate bargaining-table details. The public becomes aware of the outcome of talks when the two sides reach an agreement, usually shortly before it goes to a board or council vote. COIN requires that proposals and counterproposals be made public.

Currently, Costa Mesa, Beverly Hills, and Fullerton have COIN measures in place along with Orange County. Marin County has considered an ordinance, although local news reports indicate administrators gave the proposal a cool reception last month.

The measure sent to Brown would apply those transparency standards to any contract for private services valued over $250,000 – but only for COIN-operating agencies. An analysis by Renne Sloan Holtzman Sakai, a law firm that represents public employers, notes that the bill would affect arrangements for more than a dozen contracted services, from accounting to waste removal.

“In short, SB 331 would impose extraordinary burdens on agencies working to promote a better public understanding of labor costs,” the analysis states.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the bill “purports to be about transparency but it’s really about the opposite.”

He predicted that if passed, it will chill the nascent movement to pull back the covers on union contract talks.

Labor unions counter that COIN unfairly targets their contracts and lets outsourcing pacts slide. From their perspective, the Mendoza bill merely balances the books.

“If the message (of COIN) is, ‘Let’s shine a light,’ there are billions of dollars in other contracts that should face the same scrutiny,” said Carroll Wills, spokesman for California Professional Firefighters, one of nearly two dozen labor unions supporting SB 331.

Jennifer Muir, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, said that COIN ordinances spring from a “narrative” that unfairly casts public employees and their unions as villains. Meanwhile, she said, about half of Orange County’s $5.4 billion budget is spent on private-sector contracts that don’t receive as much scrutiny as employee compensation.

“I don’t think anybody can say with a straight face that the public wouldn’t be better served with more light on those contracts,” Muir said.

Sen. John Moorlach, a Costa Mesa Republican who successfully backed a COIN ordinance last year when he was an Orange County supervisor, said that labor contracts come from a system at cross-purposes: Unions bargain for terms with politicians who also take union campaign money or fear it.

“It’s the biggest conflict of interest on the planet,” Moorlach said. “(The unions) do not get how abusive they are.”

He dismissed union concerns that personal services contracts are abused, since substantial contracts are subject to competitive bidding.

If Brown is “savvy,” Moorlach said, he will veto the Mendoza measure and allow local governments to handle their affairs as they see fit.

But Moorlach expects the Democratic governor will sign the bill, citing unions’ consistent support for Brown since his return to office in 2010, his 2014 re-election and the successful 2012 tax hike.

“If the governor vetoes it,” Moorlach said, “I’ll fall out of my chair.”