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City Council opts to make collective bargaining discussions open to public

The public's right to know ended up superseding city employee's rights to privacy during last night's Sunnyside City Council meeting.

For the past several months, Councilman Don Vlieger has been lobbying to have the Council open collective bargaining sessions with city employees' union representatives. In a couple of instances before last night, the Council rejected Vlieger's idea of opening the collective bargaining sessions.

But with a new Council in place, last night's vote went Vlieger's way. Council members Bengie Aguilar and Alex de la Cruz were the only ones to vote against the measure, citing a need for the city to protect the privacy of its employees.

The new amendment to the Council Rules of Procedure calls for all discussions and reports, except for the initial strategy session concerning collective bargaining, to be open to the public for discussion. The amendment also says the initial strategy session held in executive session will detail the city's plans for negotiations with the different union groups.

Vlieger provided some background for his reasoning as to why he has been pushing so hard to open the executive sessions to the public.

Under the former system the Council had for negotiations, the governing body would meet in executive session to discuss the parameters for contract negotiations. The two sides would meet and discuss the proposals, followed by the Council meeting in executive session again to go over the counter proposals. When the two sides reached an agreement, a contract would be devised and presented in an open public session for approval.

"There is no public input on any of this," said Vlieger.

Vlieger said under the old system once the new contract comes before the public, the Council has no choice but to approve it without the benefit of public input.

"The public is just flapping their jaws (if they talk about the contract when Council approves it) because if we vote no, we have a problem here with unfair labor practices," said Vlieger. "It is basically just a charade to bring (the contract) out here in public. The public has a right to know. It is their money."

Councilman Bruce Ricks agreed with Vlieger, saying he didn't realize when he was elected to Council that he wouldn't be able to discuss what was going on to his constituents.

"There is a place for executive session," said Ricks. "(But) we are spending the public's money. They have a right to know."

Councilman Jim Restucci explained to those in attendance the Council is not able to discuss what is going on in collective bargaining, but the different bargaining units aren't prohibited from going before the public with their version of events.

"It is important for the public to know what is going on in these executive sessions," said Restucci.

One of the concerns voiced by de la Cruz was opening collective bargaining discussions to the public there would be the likelihood that the process would take even longer than it does now. Interim City Manager Mark Kunkler said the overall process for bargaining wouldn't change, where each side meets with its representatives. The only area that would change would be receiving public input on the matter.

de la Cruz was also concerned about making the personal information of public employees common knowledge. de la Cruz said through his brief discussions with staff members, he found out they would not appreciate the discussions taking place in public.

"I just worry about staff and how they are going to feel about it," said de la Cruz.

"We need to be supportive of our staff," added Aguilar.

Aguilar said executive sessions serve a purpose, in this case it is to develop a strategy for negotiations.

"Executive session is for the benefit of the public," Aguilar said.

But Restucci disagreed with the comments by Aguilar.

"The public needs to know we are not doing anything secretively," said Restucci. "The public needs to know. They have a right to know. The public's right to know far outweighs our secrecy here."

Restucci told Aguilar that during the executive session at the beginning of his term, he didn't know what was going on because the matters being discussed weren't public knowledge.

Restucci further felt by making collective bargaining issues public it might relieve some of the pressures for city employees.

Mayor Ed Prilucik was in favor of Vlieger's proposal, but expressed concern the different bargaining groups would try to start talks with Council members, once the matter became open to the public. Prilucik wanted to make sure the Council left bargaining matters up to city staff.

Mayor Pro-tem Mike Farmer said it has long been his goal to make the Council's business public knowledge.

"I think this is one area we can let the public know what we are doing," said Farmer. "I think it is going to give the public an opportunity to see (how we work)."

Not everyone agreed.

"I think you guys are opening Pandora's Box," said Sunnyside Firefighter Bob Johnson.

Johnson warned the Council that opening discussions to the public could come back to haunt the Council members. Johnson said the public might feel city employees aren't being paid enough if the matter became public knowledge.

Clint Carter, who works for the city's public works department, said salaries of city employees are public knowledge, but warned the Council that if the citizens are going to talk about salaries, then city employees weren't going to sit back and do nothing.

"The public employees are going to stand up at this podium and comment as well," said Carter.

. Mike Kantman can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or email him at mkantman@eaglenewspapers.com

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