Idaho Lawmakers Embrace Open Meetings, Michigan Still Waiting for Transparency

New law may be "the best in the nation"

In May, the Idaho Legislature unanimously passed a bill to increase transparency in collective bargaining. House Bill 167 amended the Idaho Open Meetings Act to bring negotiations between cities and unions into the daylight.

Mackinac’s sister think tank, the Idaho Freedom Foundation says “the collective bargaining law might be the best in the nation.”

The reform expanded Idaho’s OMA to cover all governing bodies, including school boards, cities, counties and fire districts, as well as their designated representatives. The change was specifically targeted to police and fire union negotiations, closing loopholes under previous law.

Since 2011 school boards have had to open their labor negotiations meetings to the public, but some were able to close negotiations by designating bargaining to a subcommittee. The new legislation extended OMA provisions to governing boards’ “designated representatives,” meaning the school boards could no longer close negotiations by delegating them out to subcommittees.

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Along with the open meeting requirements, any documents in private conversations between government officials and unions are now open to public disclosure.

The main exception is when negotiations are “about a specific employee, when the information has a direct bearing on the issues being negotiated and a reasonable person would conclude that the release of that information would violate that employee's right to privacy.”

Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, wrote:

“Nothing good grows under the cover of darkness. Closed negotiations for labor contracts means the public has no way to know what was being negotiated away. Taxpayers would never be able to weigh in when salary schedules, health care benefits and vacation and sick leave were up for grabs. City and school district patrons were shut out of a process that decided the fate of large swaths of government expenditures.”

Hoffman also noted that opening the meetings would be good for unions too. “On the flip side, labor unions complained that they were mistreated behind closed doors, that frank discussions turned into hostile and confrontational bullying sessions by people in official, powerful positions.”

Unlike Idaho, Michigan allows closed meetings for collective bargaining. Section 8c of Michigan’s OMA allows a governing board to meet in a closed session “[f]or strategy and negotiation sessions connected with the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement if either negotiating party requests a closed hearing.”

When it comes to Michigan transparency on unions and collective bargaining, the state has a long way to go. According to the recently released Mackinac study Bringing Financial Transparency to Michigan's Public Sector Unions “under current Michigan law, [government] union members cannot easily assess whether their union is making good use of their money to effectively represent their interests, because the state lacks effective financial reporting requirements for public sector unions.”

The study includes model legislation to require government unions to provide the same detailed transparency for finances as their private sector counterparts.

While policymakers look into the problem of government union financial transparency they may also want to consider Idaho’s reforms concerning open meetings.

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