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.

November 14, 2014

Vail Lifted from Teacher Collective Bargaining Negotiations in Colorado

Colorado voters said YES to Proposition 104 last week at a ratio of 7 to 3. The ballot initiative will open collective bargaining negotiations between teachers’ unions and school boards to the public. Supporters say the new law will bring transparency to local government, allowing parents and taxpayers a look into what teachers’ unions ask for during negotiations.

Should Missouri pursue similar reform?

Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are subject to Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Many existing agreements can be viewed on Show-Me Sunshine. Here are just a few of the hundreds of items teachers and school boards have bargained for:

  • Salary
  • Benefits
  • Sick days
  • Student behavior
  • Parent communication
  • Amount of time a parent may spend in the classroom
  • Paid release days for union activity
  • Hiring policies

Parents may not be aware of the restrictiveness of some of these contracts. A study by USC Associate Professor Katharine Strunk found that in school districts with more union power school boards had less flexibility in decision making. This is unnerving, as school board members are elected by citizens; teachers’ unions are not.

Perhaps if Missouri’s Sunshine Law was expanded to include collective negotiations, school boards would be less likely to give in to cumbersome demands in the presence of taxpayers and parents. In the absence of a collaborative policy, this would bring parents and taxpayers a step closer to having a place at the bargaining table.

October 15, 2014

Ain’t No Sunshine: What’s Going On Behind Government’s Closed Doors?

This month, the Missouri State Auditor’s office released a report on state and local government compliance with Missouri’s Sunshine Law. The Sunshine Law requires government bodies to keep meetings open to the public, provides procedures and safeguards when a meeting needs to be held in private, and imposes other requirements on government bodies to ensure transparency. According to the auditor’s report, state agencies and local governments across the state are not complying with these laws.

The report includes numerous violations of public records and public meeting requirements. The following government bodies failed to abide by the proper procedure for making meetings closed to the public:


  • Gentry County
  • City of Savannah
  • Ste. Genevieve County
  • City of Liberal
  • Southern Dallas County Fire Protection District
  • Daviess County
  • City of Brentwood
  • Department of Public Safety/State Emergency Management Agency
  • City of Buckner
  • City of Diamond
  • Cedar County
  • Caldwell County
  • McDonald County
  • Lake Lotawana Community Improvement District
  • Vernon County
  • Montgomery County
  • Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners
  • Clark County
  • Stone County
  • The School District of Springfield, R-XII
  • Monarch Fire Protection District
  • Natural Resources/Soil and Water Conservation Program
  • Higher Education/Southeast Missouri State University
  • Madison County

Most of the government bodies that failed to keep meetings open were cities and counties, but some of these bodies, including the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, the Department of Public Safety/State Emergency Management Agency, and the Southern Dallas County Fire Protection District, are charged with ensuring public safety. The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, for example, failed to comply with the provisions of Missouri law that require a body in a closed meeting to properly document issues discussed, to discuss only authorized topics during the closed meeting, and to properly disclose the final disposition of matters discussed in closed sessions.

Government bodies have the power to deprive us of life, liberty, and property. They are charged with providing public safety and education services that Missourians depend on. They are given the power to extract payment for these services whether an individual wants them or not. The open government requirements of Missouri’s Sunshine Law are essential safeguards against abuse of government power.

April 11, 2014

Tell Taxpayers Where Their Money Is Going

On Thursday, the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., disclosed that the city is ponying up another $65,000 to woo the 2016 Republican convention. Jackson Co., Mo., Wyandotte Co./Kansas City, Kan., and Johnson Co., Kan., also are chipping in an additional $65,000 each. This $260,000 total is in addition to the $100,000 that Kansas City, Mo., already spent. We participated in a KSHB TV story about the spending and asserted that taxpayers ought to be told what is being promised in their name.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James argued that hosting the convention is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he may be correct. Certainly, we all are proud of Kansas City and eager to show off on the 40th anniversary of the last time we hosted. Those are arguments for spending the money — they are not arguments for not telling taxpayers how the money is being spent. If the mayor is so confident about his choices, there is no reason to hide who is getting the money and for what. Furthermore, taxpayers ought to know what additional commitments the city is making to the convention committee. Remember, the $165,000 spent so far is just for the bid to host. Hosting itself will cost millions.

The city claims that the convention will have a large economic impact. We previously have written that those estimates are largely useless as they assume that without the convention there would be no economic activity — which is just silly. The city’s “fact sheet” suggests the economic impact to Kansas City would be similar to Tampa’s in 2012: $214 million. The city likely is getting that from a Tampa Tribune story in which they cited a University of Tampa analysis:

The total impact takes in $214 million in direct spending by the groups that put on the convention, including the Tampa Bay Host Committee, the City of Tampa, the convention’s Committee on Arrangements and corporate sponsors.

Note that in addition to ignoring any economic activity that would have happened without the convention, this impact includes spending from Tampa’s taxpayers.

Lastly, it was gratifying to read in their “fact sheet” that the city thinks we have sufficient hotel rooms and bus service to accommodate the convention, and that our airport has more than 50 direct flights. Let’s hope city officials remember this the next time they advocate committing public funds to convention hotels, streetcars, and new airport terminals.

April 8, 2014

New On Show-Me Sunshine: School District Collective Bargaining Agreements

In 2007, the Missouri Supreme Court overruled 60 years of case law and determined that teachers have the right to organize and collectively bargain. At the Show-Me Institute, we wanted to determine how many districts have entered into collective bargaining agreements (CBA), so we requested CBAs from every public school district in Missouri with more than 1,000 students. Approximately one-fifth of the districts we contacted have a formal CBA. In the interest of transparency, we have posted those agreements online here.

April 4, 2014

Airport Advisory Group Not Really Interested In Input

A previous post detailed the Kansas City Airport Terminal Advisory Group’s effort to avoid open records laws in their meetings with Kansas City public officials. This post deals with the group’s unwillingness to even hear from those skeptical of a new terminal. On Jan. 30, I wrote the following email to Airport Terminal Advisory Group leaders Bob Berkebile and David Fowler:

I was able to attend the Advisory Group presentation before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce last week, and the slideshow contained four statements that are either incorrect of very misleading. These include (1) the ‘firewall’ between airport funds and the city, (2) whether city funds can be used by an airport, (3) that all city bonds require a public vote and (4) that no airport has ever defaulted and that the city is not a guarantor.

The Show-Me Institute has conducted a great deal of independent research into the Aviation Department’s claims and the wisdom of large airport projects in general. We would welcome the opportunity to present our findings to the Advisory Group, so that they need not lean so heavily on presentations from the department whose claims they are investigating.

That same day, Fowler forwarded the message to a city staffer with this addition:

Can you have your folks at the city look into these matters, please ?

I am sure this group is looking for exceptions to the general rule and will try to discredit what we have heard in testimony from the Aviation Department and the City finance group.

These are certainly policies and broad statements about the legal ramifications of the airport revenue bonds. Whether there are exceptions, loopholes, etc may be called into question.

Maybe have [the City Attorney] look into potential exceptions, etc.

A few days later, on Feb. 2, Fowler forwarded my note to one of the consultants at Frasca and Associates, who is working with the advisory group, with this addition:

Please see the email we received from a special interest group contesting certain facts we have heard from either the Aviation Department and/or representatives of Kansas City.

Which one of these points would you be credentialed to respond to or could research without much additional time (so we don’t blow our Frasca budget) and which ones would you suggest are more legal issues best handled by independent attorneys ? In other words, are some of these questions Kansas City airport-specific, Missouri law-specific or are they all generic facts around most public airports ?

I would like to discuss this during our planned call on Feb. 4, but wanted to give you advance notice that we need answers on these asap either from you or someone else who is independent. We may be able to get our FAA representative to clarify as well and we intend to pose to him too.

Two weeks after that, on Feb. 17, Fowler sent this note to the same city staffer to whom he initially forwarded my email:

Can you please confirm back to me that someone from the City has followed up with Patrick Tuohey on his email below so he feels like we are paying attention to his messages.  I don’t want him ever saying he reached out to us and nobody ever responded.

Let me say loudly that we reached out to them and nobody ever responded. On March 24, I again sent to advisory group leaders Berkebile and Fowler the following note:

On January 30, I sent the note below indicating that the Show-Me Institute has compiled a good deal of independent research on the proposed new terminal. This research includes matters that ATAG has never covered, including financing and the impact of debt servicing.

My note received no response. Therefore, I am asking that the original January 30 email be considered testimony and be distributed to all members of the Advisory Group and included in whatever testimony is made public.

As of this writing, we have heard nothing. They received our note but apparently were more interested in circling the wagons — and seemingly protecting the Aviation Department from being contradicted — than actually collecting information on the new terminal proposal. Perhaps as a result of failing to accept pertinent testimony, Kansas City Mayor Sly James stated falsely in his State of the City address that funds raised at the airport must remain at the airport.

We cannot know what other groups have asked to present information to the Advisory Group and been rebuffed or ignored. We do know that some groups, such as airport concession operators, have not been heard from and we know that the consultants downplayed important testimony from Southwest Airlines. Observers of the advisory group have complained that it gives the appearance of being one-sided and uninterested in legitimate public dialogue. These internal communications only confirm those fears.

April 3, 2014

Airport Advisory Group Seeks To Avoid Public Scrutiny

Avoiding public scrutiny is no way to conduct the people’s business.

We have been critical of the Kansas City mayor’s airport terminal advisory group, including when leadership met with the Kansas City Aviation Department’s PR firm. We also have been critical of its conflicted make-up and its treatment of opponents. Prior to that, we were critical of the Aviation Department and of the Kansas City City Council for refusing to answer questions. We’re not alone; some have called for the airport director to go.

But this is something new. In a recent email sent from the advisory group’s leader, Bob Berkebile, including to several city employees, he seeks to circumvent Missouri’s open meetings law (emphasis added):

On another note we have offered to meet with members of the city council who may want to offer input or to hear from us about how we are doing with our deliberations.  Cindy Circo has extended an invitation to members of the council to meet with us between 9:30 and 11 either this Thursday or on April 3rd.  Our assumption is that these will be informal and that only a few will schedule interviews (to date John Sharp is the only one to request time).  We have also assumed that they will be small (one to one sessions or two of us and two of them in a session).  Cindy and Travis will help us manage the times and any potential conflicts with committee structures to avoid creating a public meeting. Please let us know if you are interested in representing us with your council representative or any of them, and if you are interested please identify what dates/times you are available.

In other words, city council members want to offer input, but they don’t want to do so publicly. This is not new or unique to Kansas City government — all levels of government seek to work around the open record or sunshine or freedom of information laws that apply to them. However, it is disheartening to learn that the group supposedly appointed to bring the public into the discussion about a $1.2 billion new terminal is complicit in keeping things from them.

At every ‘town hall’-style meeting the advisory group hosted that I attended, people said they were frustrated with the process and that they felt locked out of meaningful discussion. Unfortunately, the advisory group’s actions seem to confirm the worst of these fears.

March 19, 2014

A Victory For Government Accountability In Kansas City

When the Missouri Legislature considered creating a land bank for Kansas City, the Show-Me Institute was opposed. We argued in testimony before the legislature that the existing Jackson County Land Trust was as effective as any similar agency across the country. We testified that:

There does not appear to be any evidence that the Jackson County Land Trust is doing a poor job of getting vacant property back into private, productive use.

Considering the Saint Louis example, any effort in Kansas City was likely to fall prey to Kansas City politicians who might direct the city to hold onto property on behalf of favored constituents or special interests. We are glad to report that the Kansas City Land Bank has addressed these concerns. On March 3, the Board of Commissioners adopted the following resolution:

The Land Bank supplements the Code of Ethics with the additional requirement, that any Commissioner that receives a contact from an elected official or staff lobbying for or against particular application for a property held by the Land Bank shall disclose such contact to the Land Bank staff within a reasonable time thereafter, and shall disclose that contact to the other Commissioners prior to voting upon the particular application for which such contact was made.

The board also will start listing the reasons for any application rejection in the minutes so that applicants and others can understand the commissioners’ decision-making process. This is a great win for transparency in government, and we congratulate the land bank board for taking this important step.

March 12, 2014

Hospital Price Transparency Bill A Bold And Necessary Reform

In the coming days, the Show-Me Institute will release a policy brief about what Missouri can do to improve access, cost, and quality of care for Medicaid patients. Authored by yours truly, the paper outlines five serious reform ideas, and one of those ideas focuses on price transparency from hospitals.

One of the biggest obstacles to greater competition and lower prices in the health care arena is the absence of readily accessible and easily comparable pricing information for common medical procedures. For as many things as the Affordable Care Act got wrong, it got right its requirements for greater price transparency. A review of the data last year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hammers this point home.

For example, average inpatient charges for services a hospital may provide in connection with a joint replacement range from a low of $5,300 at a hospital in Ada, Okla., to a high of $223,000 at a hospital in Monterey Park, Calif.

Even within the same geographic area, hospital charges for similar services can vary significantly. For example, average inpatient hospital charges for services that may be provided to treat heart failure range from a low of $21,000 to a high of $46,000 in Denver, Colo., and from a low of $9,000 to a high of $51,000 in Jackson, Miss.

There are numerous reasons costs can vary wildly from hospital to hospital, and quality of care is almost certainly a component. But if you’re from California and could travel to Oklahoma instead to pay less than 3 percent of the cost of a joint replacement, wouldn’t you want to know that? If you could travel across town to another hospital to pay one-fifth the cost for a procedure, wouldn’t it be important to have that information? With few exceptions, state transparency requirements for hospital pricing are pretty awful nationwide, and consumers are hurt when that information is effectively withheld.

That is why I am very much a fan of Missouri Senate Bill 684, sponsored by Missouri Sen. Jason Holsman (D-Jackson County), which would help deliver precisely that sort of information. Coincidentally, the bill will be heard in a Senate committee later this week — right about the time we release my policy brief. I intend to submit testimony on the bill.

SB 684 would be a great stride forward for Missouri health care consumers. I hope Sen. Holsman’s colleagues take the proposal very seriously.

February 11, 2014

Audio Recording Of Legislative Hearings Should Be Standard Operating Procedure At Missouri Capitol

This weekend, longtime statehouse reporter Phill Brooks penned a commentary for the Columbia Tribune examining the history of broadcasting the proceedings of the Missouri Legislature. I commend to you the whole piece, but I think Brooks intends to leave us with a warning that we should not take the unintended consequences of recording legislative proceedings for granted — not only the potential of legislators hamming it up for the camera, but also the concerns about the potential for lobbyist pressure if every official move of our representatives is documented. I appreciate those concerns; after all, we want our legislators focused on their job of legislating well, not putting on a performance.

However, I think one section of Brooks’ piece deserves to be highlighted for why erring on the side of recording should be preferred to erring on the side of what are really the political concerns of our legislators.

It is difficult to realize how different the Senate was some four decades ago.

The chamber even banned taking notes in the visitors’ gallery overlooking the chamber. A couple of senators said they didn’t want lobbyists using their quotes against them. The note-taking ban was dropped when it was exposed by a newspaper story that made the chamber look silly.

The “note-taking ban” was news to me, and it’s appalling that the Senate chamber at some point in its history felt that such a rule was appropriate. Thankfully, both the House and the Senate now livecast their floor debates online. As someone who is rarely in Jefferson City, that service is invaluable not only to my work but also to all Missourians. If legislators are concerned that constituents might hear what they said at a public hearing . . . well, they better get used to that idea, because that’s the whole point of a public hearing.

Likewise, requiring that House and Senate committee hearings to be broadcast in the same way as when the full House and Senate are in session — or, alternatively, recorded and made available online afterward — should be a no-brainer when it comes to promoting transparency in government. It’s why I think the audio recording of the legislature’s public hearings should be on this year’s reform agenda. Missourians with full-time jobs across the state deserve to be able to hear the committee debates that, these days, are only accessible to “note-taking” Jefferson City lobbyists.

Let the sunshine in.

January 29, 2014

Recording Public Hearings? Let The Sunshine In

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once noted that “[p]ublicity 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.” Transparency, in other words, helps society avoid some of the social ills that could be promoted or concealed by obstruction and secrecy, and as a general matter, public policy should be decided with as many people watching as possible.

That is why I found this story so troubling.

The chair of the Senate General Laws Committee banned video coverage of the final debate and vote of his committee approving a bill that seeks to declare Missouri exempt from some federal gun laws.

Earlier, a reporter for an NBC affiliated television station had his camera physically removed by a Senate staffer from the committee on the second day of hearings on the bill.

The committee chair … had warned TV reporters the week before that he would ban cameras on tripods and restrict access to areas where it would be impossible to get a full view of anyone testifying before the committee.

Only the Senate’s official photographer was allowed to use a tripod at the committee hearing. One reporter holding a camera by hand behind the committee witnesses also was permitted to record video.

Seriously, does this look obstructive to you?

Briefly, as to the bill itself, my view on nullification is well-documented, so I won’t rehash it here. But suffice to say, it is highly problematic that the rules for covering a high-profile bill could reduce public exposure to shaky cam coverage like this.

Our democracy is better than that, and if our public bodies are not going to record these meetings themselves, they should be allowing far greater latitude for the public at large to record them in their stead. Let the sunshine in.

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