March 25, 2015

Restoring Accountability and Transparency—Four Quick Points on SB 549

After several posts directed at the labor reforms included in SB 549, it might be useful to summarize what the bill would do. SB 549 is aimed at increasing accountability and transparency in government labor relations. If passed, the bill would:

  • Require a union that seeks to represent public employees as their exclusive representative to stand for re-election by those employees every two years. Existing law often prevents public employees from having a say in who represents them. These elections would ensure public employees have a voice.
  • Require collective bargaining sessions to be held in open sessions covered by the Sunshine Law. Due to a legal loophole, such meetings often are held behind closed doors.
  • Require government unions to disclose financial information in an annual filing. These filings would be similar to the filings traditional private-sector unions already have to make.
  • Limit the term of government collective bargaining agreements to two years, rendering evergreen clauses unenforceable.

All four of these are modest, yet important reforms.

Just a Bill

March 19, 2015

Closing Loopholes in the Sunshine Law

government hallwaySometimes we like loopholes. Maybe you’ve used one to get out of a traffic ticket or to pay a little less tax. I remember hearing about a poorly thought out tax credit for electric vehicles that folks were using to pay for golf carts. Cute. A little scummy, but cute. But when the government uses a loophole to set policy behind closed doors, it’s not so cute.

There is a loophole in Missouri’s open records and meetings law that allows government entities, such as cities, fire districts, and school boards, to negotiate with unions and set public policy in meetings that are closed to the public. State law should open the collective bargaining process because the public pays for, and depends on, the policies set in these meetings.

Some government agencies have already opened collective bargaining meetings. In 2014, the Columbia Public Schools opened its collective bargaining meetings. It has held open meetings ever since. According to Christine King, president of the Columbia Public Schools Board of Education, the board opened the process because they felt open meetings advanced the public’s interest in full transparency and openness. Such openness in public affairs empowers citizens to hold their representatives in government accountable.

Since the Columbia Public Schools began holding its collective bargaining meetings in open sessions, the local paper, the Columbia Daily Tribune, has covered these meetings, parents, teachers, and anyone else is welcome to attend, and members of the public can view meeting minutes online and see that the parties negotiate in good faith with one another.

Open collective bargaining, as practiced by forward thinking local government entities like Columbia Public Schools and Monarch Fire Protection District, should be standard practice for Missouri state and local governments. One bill, SB 549, promises to do just that by closing the loophole in Missouri’s sunshine law that some public entities use to justify closing collective bargaining sessions. Reform that requires these meetings be held in the open would be a win for anyone who wants transparent, accountable government.

March 7, 2015

Bill Addresses Government Union Transparency Gap

What is the difference between a government union, like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the union representing folks at the brewery downtown?

In the Show-Me State, one big difference is that unions representing public workers, like teachers, police, and firefighters, are not required to be as transparent as traditional private-sector unions. Whereas your neighbor who works for a private business can look up his union’s financial filings and see how union executives use his dues, the dues-paying teacher down the block can be left in the dark about where his membership fees are going. This transparency gap is unfair for workers, but it should also alarm the public, which negotiates with government unions and pays for the services provided by union labor.

transparencySo why do private-sector unions share information about their finances with the public, while Missouri’s government unions do not?

Federal law requires most unions to make annual filings that disclose basic financial information, including assets, liabilities, and money spent on political activities. The federal government makes these filings publicly available and searchable online. This way, a member of the public, including a dues-paying worker, can see how their union spends money. However, federal labor law does not apply to unions representing state and local government employees.

Other states, such as Michigan, have enacted some financial transparency requirements for their government unions. These state laws ensure state and local government unions that fall through the cracks in federal law still have some basic standards of financial transparency. Unfortunately, Missouri lags behind.

Right now, the Missouri Legislature is taking up a government union accountability bill (SB 549) that aims to correct this disparity between private-sector unions and government unions. Among other things, the bill would require government unions to disclose their finances in an annual filing very similar to the LM filings that private-sector unions already make. These filings would allow workers and the public to see how government unions spend taxpayer-funded union dues.

Government unions should be at least as transparent as private-sector unions. Bringing government union transparency up to the same level as private-sector union transparency is simply common sense.

February 20, 2015

Shock and Audit: St. Joseph School District Out Tens of Millions Because of Staff “Stipends”

Missouri has seen its share of boondoggles. To name a few in recent years, Moberly was taken in on a $39 million sucralose scam that downgraded the city’s credit rating, left bondholders hanging, and resulted in jail time for one of the masterminds. In Kansas City, officials had to settle with a developer for millions over the failed Citadel redevelopment project, which saw criminal prosecutions of its own.

Now enters the St. Joseph School District. As reported by the St. Joseph News-Press:

“We went back about eight years and found there was over $25 million worth of stipends either not approved, unauthorized or improper. That $25 million worth of stipends is what we found to be problematic,” [State Auditor Tom Schweich] told the crowd inside the Oak Grove Elementary School commons area.

Since there was not full documentation going back further than 2001, Mr. Schweich added, that number could be in excess of $40 million paid out in stipends over that period.

“That is a startling amount of money,” he said, followed by a collective groan from the audience.

“Startling” is an understatement. The questionable stipends account for, on average, over $3 million each of the last eight years that could have gone toward substantive and proper investments in the education of St. Joseph’s children. Instead, according to the News-Press, it appears the money went to a wide array of cronyistic efforts,

including $45 for a Sam’s Club membership for [Superintendent Dr. Fred] Czerwonka, $1,500 for a painting for [Chief Operating Officer Rick] Hartigan’s office and $7,650 in free Internet service for 16 individuals, including an individual the district claimed they did not know.

In the auditor’s words, the stipends operated much like a “slush fund.” Throw in $3.4 million in overpayments from the state to the district because of inaccurate reporting and a swath of closed district meetings that should have been open to the public, and you have the makings of a full-blown scandal in northwest Missouri. It remains to be seen whether criminal action will be taken in the matter, but that seems to be very much on the table at this point.

Frequent readers of this blog know about our positions on transparency (for) and cronyism (against), so I won’t belabor those policy prescriptions in light of the district’s failures. The sheer magnitude of the district’s blackbox behavior is a better argument for vigilance and reform of state and local government than my words alone could offer.

It also goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that “per pupil spending” remains a meaningless statistic, a fact emphasized here. How much you spend “on” a student doesn’t matter if the line items are $1,500 on administrators’ art, rather than $1,500 on the art department.

And yes, there will be many important story lines that will be worth talking about as the district’s actions are fully vetted, but one story line that has to remain front and center is how shameful it is that it took more than a decade for these problems to fully come to light—and the risk that St. Joseph’s scandal is just the canary in the coal mine statewide. That this school district was insulated so long from critical oversight makes me wonder whether similar behaviors might be taking place in one of the other 519 districts (!) in the state . . . and we simply don’t know it yet.

More to the point: If Missouri’s school districts are going to tell the state they have funding problems, then it’s fair for the state and the taxpayers to take a fresh look at how each district spends, or misspends, the state’s tax dollars. That is especially true in light of St. Joseph’s present troubles.

Education funding should be for the children, not for the districts, and it’s time district books were cracked open and thoroughly reviewed. For the state to deliver a quality education for our kids, it needs to hold every district accountable not only to stop problems like this from happening again, but also to ensure that they’re still not happening someplace else.

February 19, 2015

Transparency Would Shine Some Light

The essence of a well-functioning democracy includes transparency and a right to information. When fire protection boards, such as the O’Fallon Fire Protection District, make crucial decisions in closed-door meetings, they are violating a critical tenet of democracy.

file0001605429169Former Fire Chief Mike Ballmann, who claims that the firefighters union pressured the board to fire him, believes that the union has overstepped its role in the affairs of the fire district. When asked about union involvement in the management of the fire district, Ballmann said that the Fire Protection District Board of Directors was “packed with union people so the shop gets what it wants without any grief.” With the union’s heavy involvement in deciding who will run for the board positions, has the government union overstepped its role?

Since the district is funded by taxpayers, its business should be conducted with the interest of the taxpayer in mind. However, when board meetings are closed, interested taxpayers do not get to see how government unions involve themselves in district affairs. Furthermore, according to Ballmann, there are instances when the union shop steward is invited into the closed board meeting, which not even fire chiefs are allowed to attend. The problem isn’t the existence of a union, but rather their conspicuous control over the fire protection district.

The obvious and sensible solution is for fire districts like O’Fallon to follow in the footsteps of the Monarch Fire Protection District and initiate an open collective bargaining process. This would make sure that any changes made to district operations, union contracts, and decisions to hire or fire employees are free from ambiguity. However, despite efforts to gain the O’Fallon Fire Protection District Board’s insight on this issue, the inner workings of the district seem as ambiguous as ever.

Taxpayers are aware of the great importance firefighters play in protecting their community; their concern, rather, lies in the fact that their fire district is lacking representative leadership and sufficient oversight. Transparency is essential to guarantee that the taxpayer interests are being met. Once open collective bargaining becomes the norm for all government unions, we can ensure that both the worker and the taxpayer are being represented and considered in the political process.

February 16, 2015

Balance Through Transparency – Part 3

I previously wrote about the problems with overly adversarial government labor relations. This wasn’t to say that a cozy relationship between government and government unions is always a good thing either.

Fox-HenAnother firefighter I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, seemed to think the situation in the Saint Louis region was much worse. He told me that at more than one fire protection district the board routinely asks shop stewards for permission to make personnel decisions. According to him, the union packs fire district boards and management positions with people who answer to the union, which, in effect, gives the union control over the management.

Undoubtedly, the union representing firefighters in Saint Louis County, IAFF Local 2665, has another perspective to contribute. It has not yet responded to any of my requests for comment, but I believe there are multiple sides to this story, and I look forward to hearing from them.

It can be tricky to find the right balance in government labor relations. On the one hand, industrial strife leaves citizens dependent on, and paying for, shoddy government services. On the other hand, too cozy a relationship between a government and a government union yields a “fox in the henhouse” situation, where taxpayers get fleeced by a private entity with exclusive control of a government entity. The trick is to find balance. And the best way to achieve balance is to open up the process to the public and let Brandeis’s policeman sort things out.

February 14, 2015

Balance Through Transparency – Part 2

In writing about how increased transparency can help improve government labor relations, I thought it might be useful to illustrate two ways government labor relations can become problematic. The first situation is one where the relationship between a government union and government becomes toxic, making it hard for government employees to deliver public services.

David Richard, a former fire captain and union member in Saint Louis County, told me that somewhere along the line the collective bargaining process became “infected.”

Tug-of-war“The union became radical,” David told me. David believes a firefighters union can serve a good purpose, but the situation in many districts has become too adversarial. “The district needs a dialogue, a common ground.” And with the infected relationship between management and the union, ordinary procedures, such as employee review, are compromised.

“I was torn between my duties as a captain and my duties as a good union member,” David said of the employee review process. As a captain, he had the duty to review employees, but as a union member, he had a duty to protect his fellow union members. As the union became more militant, it became increasingly difficult for him to play both roles.

What’s the big deal? People complain about their union being too radical or too soft all the time.

The difference here is that we’re talking about our government.

If a traditional private-sector union is too radical and labor relations suffer, then it’s only a private company that suffers. It’s bad for employees and owners of that company, but society as a whole can always buy Toyotas instead of Fords. If government labor relations suffer, then citizens serviced by and paying for that government entity are stuck with the consequences.

More on this to follow…

February 13, 2015

Finding Balance Through Transparency

One of the biggest issues in public policy today has to do with the collective bargaining agreements, or CBAs, that are negotiated between some government unions and the government entities that employ union labor. These agreements can have huge implications for our communities’ future budgets and, ultimately, our tax levels.

That’s why recent, troubling news out of Saint Louis County should concern anyone interested in good, effective, and financially secure government. I’ve spoken to a number of firefighters in Saint Louis County recently, and the stories I’m hearing are not good: self-dealing, intimidation, fire district board members using bulletproof vests in their meetings. Something has gone awry.

In response to this strife, some fire districts are trying something new. At Monarch Fire Protection District, instead of holding collective bargaining meetings behind closed doors, the board has decided to open up the process to the public, as Missouri’s Sunshine Law requires them to do with most other meetings. So far the results have been promising.

So why isn’t this already standard practice with government collective bargaining? After all, collective bargaining meetings are deliberative processes where public officials set public policy, including employee compensation, work rules, and grievance procedures.

BrandeislMissouri Sunshine Law (a.k.a. Open Meetings and Records Law) provides that public government bodies may close meetings, records, and votes to the extent they relate to a negotiated contract until that contract is executed or all proposals are rejected. Hence, government bodies close collective bargaining sessions with government unions under the theory that collective bargaining is a contract negotiation.

Collective bargaining is a contract negotiation of sorts, but it is not the same as contracting with an outside firm. Collective bargaining is a negotiation between staff and management over internal operations. Because policy can be set in these bargaining sessions, exempting government collective bargaining from the Sunshine Law is a mistake, especially when the public is concerned about labor relations at a government entity upon which they depend.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote,

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

Expanding the scope of Missouri’s transparency laws to cover collective bargaining meetings and access to government records would be one good way to alleviate the labor relations problems we’re seeing in the public sector.

February 11, 2015

How to Ensure Springfield Teachers’ Voices Are Heard

In many school districts, teachers are left out of the collective bargaining process simply because they do not belong to the right teachers association. Recertification elections can give these teachers a voice by requiring an association that acts as the exclusive representative to periodically run for reelection in order to maintain this privileged status.

A good illustration of this problem can be found in Springfield, Missouri. Springfield School District has long had teachers represented by both the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) and the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA). In 2010, MNEA won an election awarding it the privilege to be the exclusive representative for teachers in collective bargaining sessions with the district. This meant that MNEA, and only MNEA, could negotiate with the district on behalf of the teachers.

Your_Vote_Counts_BadgeWhen MNEA excluded nonmembers from discussions on whether to ratify the new union contract, MSTA sued. And lost. As the exclusive representative, MNEA is free to represent workers the way it sees fit. It does not have to include members of a rival union in its deliberation process.

Still, this may not seem very fair to a longtime MSTA member who only recently lost her ability to participate in internal school district politics because of the exclusive representative election. But with recertification elections, her voice can be heard even if her teachers association is not currently the exclusive representative.

With recertification elections, in order for an association to continue to act as the only association able to negotiate on behalf of employees, that association must be re-elected every couple of years. This would prevent an association from winning an election once, and then representing employees for years after the association has lost most of its supporters. It also would empower employees who belong to another association, because the exclusive representative would either have to do a good job of representing everyone’s interests or risk being voted out of office and replaced with a competitor.

Recertification elections are a lot like American democracy where a new party can be put in control of Congress every two years. Congress is by no means a perfect institution, but by requiring our representatives to stand for regular elections, we ensure some level of accountability. Teachers who feel that they don’t have a say in negotiations with their employer, such as MSTA members in Springfield, should clamor for recertification elections. It may be one of the best policy reforms we have that preserves existing rights while empowering workers to hold their representatives accountable.

February 10, 2015

Illinois Makes Union Fees Voluntary for Government Workers

illYesterday, the governor of Illinois signed an executive order making union fees voluntary for government employees. Government unions are likely to challenge the order, but it is a significant gain for workers who do not want to pay for representation by an association to which they do not belong.

Why doesn’t Missouri follow suit? In our state, government workers, such as police and firefighters, are often required to pay for union activity, whether or not they want to be a member of a union. Many police and firefighters in this situation gladly accept representation by their union and would be happy to pay voluntarily. However, the government should not force workers to pay for services they don’t want.

Sometimes workers end up paying for two unions at the same time. In Saint Louis, the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA) has mostly represented white police officers, while the Ethical Society of Police has historically acted for African-American police. Recently, SLPOA won a union contract that allowed it to force payments from all rank-and-file officers. This action forced members of the Ethical Society to choose between leaving the employee association that they wanted to represent them or paying dues to two unions at once.

Illinois’ new order is a serious gain for liberty. Missouri could enact similar reforms. Indeed, doing so would protect the rights of police and firefighters who do not want to be forced into paying for the services of a group that they haven’t voted for and don’t want as representatives. For those government workers who protect us, it’s the least we can do.

January 22, 2015

Open Collective Bargaining at Monarch

Firefighter Turnouts-Gear Rack
In October 2013, the Monarch Fire Protection District implemented a new approach to collective bargaining with the union representing rank-and-file firefighters. Rather than hold meetings on pay, benefits, time off, and work rules behind closed doors, the board of the fire district decided to make these meetings open to the public.

With open collective bargaining, any citizen, journalist, or Monarch employee interested in the process could show up to a meeting and see the demands made by the union and the board. In theory, this process would keep demands in check, tactics civil, and allow the public to see how government decisions are made.

One might think that a more transparent process for determining how a government entity delivers services and spends taxpayer money would be welcomed by all; however, it appears that the union did not like the arrangement.

“The union lawyer tried stunts to close the meetings to the public,” says Jane Cunningham, one of three members of the fire district board.

According to Cunningham, when collective bargaining was held behind closed doors, it was easy for the union to get whatever terms they wanted in the contract. In essence, the union was able to exert complete control over the fire district because it had majority control of the board and could collectively bargain without public scrutiny.

No one would suggest that private-sector collective bargaining should occur in public forums. That’s because the terms and conditions of private employment are, well, private. But the public has an interest in what public employees are paid, both because taxpayers are picking up the tab and because the right balance of compensation is important to getting good service without being overcharged.

Now that open collective bargaining is in place at Monarch, it appears that the union is no longer getting exactly what it wants in collective negotiations, and community interests are being better served.

Will other government entities open their collective bargaining negotiations? Only time will tell. For now it appears that Monarch is taking a step in the right direction with this innovative approach to government transparency.

At the time this story went to print, the firefighters union had not responded to our request for comments.

November 27, 2014

We Are Thankful for Transparency

There has been a lot of talk lately about transparency, especially the notion that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” according to an architect of the president’s health care law. Last year, we wrote that we’re thankful for data, and that remains true.

Tied to our love of data is the assumption that government is transparent enough to provide it to us. Citizens of the Show-Me State should expect no less. And in that regard, Missouri is doing okay. In 1973, the state legislature adopted our Sunshine Law, making Missouri one of the first states to adopt such an open meetings law. The law in part reads:

It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.

In 2009 the Blunt administration sought for, and the legislature provided, the implementation of the Missouri Accountability Portal, and the Nixon administration has maintained it. The website allows users “a single point of reference to review how their money is being spent and other pertinent information related to the enforcement of government programs.” Though limited in scope and sometimes difficult to navigate, this site has been good for transparency in Missouri, helping keep citizens informed and the government responsive.

We’ll leave it to others to argue about the intelligence of voters or the political expediency of openness. But here in Missouri we’re grateful for the transparency we have and the data it yields.

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