The secrecy surrounding approval of government employee contracts needs to end, as San Pablo city officials recently demonstrated when they quietly slipped last-minute changes into a pension sweetener for the city's police officers.
Perhaps if there were more transparency, if contracts were subjected to public scrutiny before approval, the city of Vallejo would not be in bankruptcy, and the state of California, Contra Costa County and the West Contra Costa school district, to name just a few, would not be struggling to pay for health benefits they irresponsibly promised workers when they retire.
Let's start with the San Pablo sleight of hand. At issue was a proposal to allow officers to retire at age 50 instead of 55 and still enjoy a rich retirement deal that pays them 3 percent of their top annual salary for every year worked. For 30-year veterans, that works out to 90 percent of their salary for the rest of their lives.
To make the switch, the City Council agreed to immediately spend $2.3 million from its reserves to boost the pension fund. In addition, future pension contributions would go up by about $175,000 a year. In a memo to the City Council in April, Human Resources Manager Arlene Lozada declared that the police negotiators "understand that (their members) will share the cost of this benefit" by contributing a 3.3 percent payroll deduction to pay for the future costs.
But that is not what
San Pablo police, already among the highest paid in Contra Costa, would receive an immediate 3.5 percent raise, and annual cost of living increases of 4 percent to 6 percent in July and in each of the next two years.
Here was the kicker: Police would be given an additional 3.3 percent raise to offset the payroll deduction for the pension sweetener. In other words, contrary to Lozada's memo, the city would be paying the full cost of the pension increase. The deal would be free to the employees.
The opportunity for meaningful public review was nonexistent. The bargaining had been going on in secret for months. Council members had been briefed by their negotiators in closed session about the progress of the talks. By the time the final deal reached the council, its approval was merely a formality. But that was the first time the public got a chance to see the terms.
It is a typical scenario for cities and counties across California. (School districts have some minimal bargaining disclosure requirements that are not imposed on other government agencies.) Taxpayers receive no useful financial analysis and have no meaningful opportunity to comment on a deal before it is finalized. That should change.
For starters, there is no good reason for the secrecy surrounding salary negotiations. The most-often-cited excuse is that opening bargaining to public observation would cause participants to grandstand or harden their positions. I suspect there might be a bit of that. But, under the current arrangement, union leaders meet with negotiators representing elected officials, who depend on many of those same unions for campaign contributions. In other words, it sometimes seems that they are all on the same side of the negotiating table. It is in neither party's interest to expose the discussions to public review, but it probably is in the taxpayers' interest to watch.
The next — and more important — step should be a public review period. Any tentative contract should be released along with analysis of the total cost of the terms of the deal and salary and benefits survey data that can used for comparison. The public should be given 30 days to analyze the deal and comment to the governing board. All parties should be put on notice from the beginning that the governing board will consider the public input when deciding whether to approve the deal. That will force negotiators to be more mindful of the public interest.
In an ideal world, we would elect representatives to city councils, boards of supervisors and school boards, and then entrust them to make the best decisions on our behalf. In reality, however, the system is not working.
Public employee compensation growth is outstripping revenues in many communities. Vallejo's bankruptcy caught the public attention, but the city probably won't be the last to seek a way out of overly generous labor contracts. Public agencies must change the way they do business.
It's unlikely that state lawmakers will have the political courage to stand up to unions and impose requirements for transparency of negotiations. So, we should call on our local officials to make changes now. For example, there's no legal reason why they cannot provide for a 30-day public review of union contracts before they are approved.
Let's start with Contra Costa County and the West Contra Costa school district, two agencies that will be embarking on labor negotiations this summer and that must make changes to stay financially solvent.
Let's challenge the county supervisors and the school board members to open up the negotiations, to provide for a public review period and to provide complete fiscal analysis of any pay package before it's approved. Let's see if they're willing to give taxpayers a voice.
Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein @bayareanewsgroup.com.