Costa Mesa Mayor pro Tem Steve Mensinger is doing a bit of bragging these days—and he’s entitled—about a quietly revolutionary process of informed public involvement in city employee labor negotiations that the city council passed a little over a year ago. Secrecy provisions in the Brown Act allow local agencies (other than public education boards) to negotiate, deliberate and decide labor agreements entirely behind closed doors, deferring public exposure of what the unions have won until the pay and benefit packages are locked in. Efforts by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and others to amend the Act to shed some daylight on what’s on the table have—thanks largely to the League of California Cities—gone nowhere in the Legislature. The result is one undeniable factor in the retirement burden in local government remarked on yesterday (and repeatedly in the past) by Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters.
But so far, disclosing the progress of negotiations and how much is at stake isn’t actually precluded by state law, and in what probably had to originate in Orange County, Mr. Mensinger’s COIN (Civic Openness in Negotiations) ordinance gives the public as a whole a say, if not the last word, in how much the city can afford. Key elements, in his words:
- “The premise behind COIN is simple: Inform the public of the annual cost of the current labor contract and provide a fiscal impact analysis of each new proposal.
- “The city must hire an independent negotiator (in Costa Mesa, prior councils had an executive-level public employee handle the negotiations).
- “Each council member must disclose any communications about the negotiations with representatives of the employee association.
- “Before any vote, the labor contract must be discussed in at least two City Council meetings and posted on the city’s website at least seven days before the first meeting.”
These rules do not amount to complete transparency. The actual labor negotiations still take place offstage, and the council still huddles with its negotiator in closed session. But COIN’s changes should bring enough translucency not to eliminate but to illuminate fair bargaining.