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Commentary: Contract negotiations are now more transparent

November 16, 2013|By Steve Mensinger

"We must be aware of needless innovation, especially when guided by logic." — Winston Churchill

It's heartening for taxpayers that transparency in public employee labor negotiations is starting to spread across Orange County and even the state.

For far too long, labor contracts — by far the biggest expense in any government agency's budget — were hammered out behind closed doors, with savvy union negotiators outwitting untrained local government staff members.

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Typically, the public had only a few days to digest a complicated contract that had been negotiated in the dark. In this upside down system, city expense accounts — which make up only a tiny fraction of the budget — get far more scrutiny than labor contracts that can represent more than 70% of a government's spending.

With negotiations taking place out of the public eye, the predictable results have been unsustainable compensation packages, including far-too-generous pension plans that threaten the long-term fiscal health of most cities in California.

In Costa Mesa, I authored the Civic Openness In Negotiations (COIN) ordinance, which provides an unprecedented level of transparency to labor negotiations. Recently, Fullerton has decided to explore its own version of COIN, and I've been contacted by representatives from other cities around Orange County and the state who are interested in this level of transparency. And the Orange County Register editorial board endorsed COIN Nov. 5.

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. For instance, in Costa Mesa, we are in negotiations with the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. (CMCEA).

Because of COIN taxpayers know that our first offer would cost taxpayers an estimated $21.6 million annually. The CMCEA's counter proposal could cost $26.4 million annually. The public has been provided with the annual cost of the third and fourth proposals as well.

COIN also has additional safeguards for the taxpayer:

•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.

COIN offers common-sense transparency to the largest contracts negotiated by cities. It takes labor negotiations out of the back room and shines the bright light of public scrutiny on the process.

With COIN, it would be nearly impossible for city councils to vote on labor contracts that contain unsustainable pension packages and unaffordable salaries and benefits.

In short, COIN takes union negotiators out of the driver's seat and puts taxpayers there instead. Many are saying that this is innovation in government and that is good, I say it's logic — logically applied.

STEVE MENSINGER is Costa Mesa's mayor pro tem.

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