I especially enjoy the classic country songs from the 1970’s. While listening to Behind Closed Doors by Charlie Rich the other day, I realized he could have been predicting the pension crisis almost four decades ago.
The seductive ballad proclaims while all may seem on the straight and narrow in public, things can be very much the opposite when we retire behind closed doors and away from prying eyes. This love song works well for Valentine’s Day, but not so much for good fiscal policy.
In California, city officials are required to conduct almost all of their business in public. One exception to this rule is labor negotiations. City Councils and their staff convene in closed session to discuss, debate and ultimately agree to labor contracts. There are no public minutes or other reporting done during the deliberations and all discussions are supposed to be confidential.
If there was a time for the public to keep a watchful eye on their elected officials – it is during labor negotiations. I have witnessed first hand those who proclaim to be “fiscal conservatives” or “taxpayer guardians” quickly turn to quasi-union reps once they are in the shelter of a closed session. Beyond the glare of both media and public scrutiny, these hypocritical voices quickly reveal their true colors. To witness it in person is both shocking and disheartening. When an elected official is parroting back a union’s deal points something is definitely wrong.
These double-agents often quickly break the confidentiality of the session and report the outcome of the proceedings back to those employee groups engaged in the negotiations. The fractured confidentiality eliminates the advantage the closed session provides. Armed with insider information, the unions can now isolate those “swing” or soft votes leaning their way with direct lobbying.
To combat this disadvantage, responsible elected officials can push for more transparency in the process. One effective strategy is to adopt a set of financial policies that are debated publicly. These policies are set to guide the labor negotiations prior to commencement. For example, you could adopt a policy that says “The goal of all labor negotiations will be to increase the employee’s contribution to pension costs.” In Huntington Beach, we recently gave direction to negotiate the elimination of pending salary increases by the end of February. By taking a public vote in a meeting keenly observed by many of the union leaders, it sends a signal that there is a solid vote for such a solution.
By setting a more transparent policy goal prior to the commencement of labor negotiations, elected officials become more accountable to the ultimate result. Further, if your community leaders are not committed to fiscally sustainable labor policy their position will be publicly vetted as well. The economic consequences of these decisions are too great to keep them hidden.
Because no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.
Don Hansen is Mayor Pro Tem of Huntington Beach. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter: @donhansen_hb