Negotiation Documents Are Public Record, Judge Rules

Published October 1, 2007

A Washington state judge has ruled that documents exchanged between the state and public employee unions during contract negotiations are public records and can be disclosed to taxpayers.

“These records are of interest to the citizens of the State,” wrote King County Judge Christopher Washington in his June 29 ruling.

$2.1 Billion Pay Hike

The case began when the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF), a free-market think tank in Olympia, Washington, filed a public records request for documents produced during state collective bargaining negotiations. The employee contracts negotiated for the 2007-09 budget amounted to $2.1 billion in extra pay for state workers.

A coalition of 10 unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Washington Public Employees Association, immediately filed suit against the state to prevent disclosure.

“The information sought is of no legitimate concern to the public and not in the public interest,” stated union attorneys in legal papers. They added, “The release of the proposals and negotiation notes will undermine collective bargaining by inviting the public, the media, and other non-parties into the negotiation process.”

Triumph of Transparency

Union lobbyists hedged their bets by prevailing upon state lawmakers to introduce legislation blocking release of the documents. Rep. Brendan Williams (D-Olympia) introduced House Bill 2326 prohibiting the release of documents related to state negotiations. This bill ultimately died after several newspapers blasted it for reducing transparency in government.

Negotiators for the union argued their free speech would be inhibited if the public subsequently found out what was said in closed negotiations.

“If I knew that my comments would be available for public review, I would not be comfortable speaking until I had carefully thought through all my comments. I might decide not to speak at all,” said T.J. Janssen, a home health care worker, in papers he filed in support of the unions.

“We could not speak openly and honestly if we knew that anything we said could appear on the front page of the Seattle Times,” said David Rolf, president of SEIU Local 775, in his court declaration.

Preference for Secrecy

Jay Ubelhart, a deckhand with the Washington State Ferry, was even more candid in his court declaration:

“As public employees in the ferry system we are in the public eye and have close daily contact with customers thousands of times each day,” Ubelhart said. “If I, in the heat of negotiations, stated I didn’t give a damn about those complaining customers and it was written down by a member of the management team, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation or a media outlet would print it on the front page of any communications organ of their choosing.”

Ultimately, Judge Washington ruled collective bargaining documents are subject to disclosure under the state Public Disclosure Act.

“The proposals of the negotiating parties and the notes of the State are not exempt from production,” the judge wrote.

‘Deserve to Know’

“This is a victory for open government,” said Ryan Bedford of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, who filed the record request. “Union members, legislators, and the taxpayers deserve to know how the state arrived at a final collective bargaining agreement.”

Eleven states grant taxpayers review of public employee union negotiations. Several states–including Florida, Minnesota, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas–allow members of the public to attend negotiation sessions.

Other states–such as Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, and Ohio–require public employers to produce negotiation documents to the public upon request.

Michael Reitz ([email protected]) is director of the Labor Policy Center for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a public policy organization in Olympia, Washington.

For more information …

Legal documents from SEIU et al. v. State of Washington, Office of Financial Management, and Steve McLain, Director of Labor Relations, in his official capacity, Defendant: King County Judge Christopher Washington’s ruling: