When public entities break the law, they often succeed due to a lack of outside scrutiny or legal accountability. A recent example occurred in Kent County, where 10 public school districts and the teachers unions agreed to contracts that included illegal language — language that could cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Fortunately, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation exists to highlight and fight such illegitimate government actions. On behalf of five Kent County taxpayers, the MCLF in December 2010 sued the districts and unions over a “no privatization” clause in school collective bargaining agreements. While the lawsuit was dismissed on technical grounds, it did highlight the illegal action to the public and demonstrated the need for state legislators to put an effective means of enforcement into the law.
The relevant law, passed in 1994, prohibits school districts and school employee unions from bargaining over “whether or not to contract with a third party for 1 or more noninstructional support services.” This restriction was intended to prevent school boards from bargaining away their ability to save taxpayers money through the privatization of transportation, custodial, food and other services.
Yet the contracts between Kent County Education Association affiliates and the school districts stipulated “All districts agree not to privatize any KCEA/MEA unionized services for the life of this agreement.” Mackinac Center Fiscal Policy Analyst James Hohman estimated that forgoing privatization savings could cost the districts as much as $6.9 million annually. This figure and the facts of the case garnered widespread media coverage.
The case went to the Kent County Circuit Court on Feb. 18. MCLF Director Patrick Wright argued the case against a team of school district and union lawyers. After two-and-a-half hours of argument, Judge James R. Redford said the arguments were compelling enough to warrant taking the case under advisement before issuing a decision. In the end, he ruled that the Legislature did not provide a mechanism for taxpayers to challenge a violation of this type.
“Then what we have is a law that can only be enforced by the parties that decide to break it,” said Wright, following the decision. “Legislators need to revisit the law and insert a mechanism for holding violators accountable.”
While the obvious goal of litigation is to win the case, it can also be a powerful means of drawing attention to unjust action. Public outrage can encourage other branches of government to correct the problem, as happened with the day care union suit (see back page).
Details of the case can be found at www.mackinac.org/14187.