A spectacularly self-dealing former Poway Unified School District superintendent pled guilty last week—but to only a misdemeanor, reports Ashly McGlone of Voice of San Diego.  Among other exercises in undue enrichment reported earlier was his insertion of “me too” clauses in Poway employee bargaining unit contracts that automatically (and quietly) gave him—and several other senior staff, including the district’s chief labor negotiator—the same pay increases that were awarded to teachers.

Although the current agreement with the teachers—in Poway or elsewhere—can be checked using the Public Records Act, there are two factors that make scrutiny more challenging. One is the fact that almost any stratum of public agency employees, including most managers, can organize into a board-recognized bargaining unit that gets little public attention compared with teachers, but can ride on their coattails by me too provisions in their own contracts. And while the Brown Act provides that final action on compensation for “unrepresented” employees must be taken in a public meeting, almost all staff can be in a “represented” bargaining unit, which means that their pay and benefits can be approved in closed session, with no advance notice to the public whose members might want to know enough to comment.

This low-to-no-profile labor relations culture is not limited to public school practices.  The City of Santa Rosa, for example, lists the following employee bargaining units:

Santa Rosa Firefighters Association – Operating Engineers Local 3, Maintenance and Utility System Operators (Employee Units 3 and 16); Santa Rosa City Employees Association (Employee Units 4, 6, 7); Service Employees International Union Local 1021 (Employee Units 8 and 14); Executive Management (Employee Unit 10); Middle Management (Employee Unit 11); Confidential (Employee Unit 12); Mechanics (Employee Unit 13); City Attorney (Employee Unit 15); Santa Rosa City Attorneys’ Association (Employee Unit 17); Santa Rosa Management Association (Employee Unit 18).

Another factor blocking public awareness of local government employees’ pay and benefits negotiations is relatively recent. Last October Governor Brown signed a bill that now allows cities, counties and special districts to keep their rationales for granting pay and benefit increases secret—not just during their negotiations with employee bargaining units, but permanently.

AB 1455 by Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (since resigned under accusations of sexual misconduct) creates an exemption from disclosure under the California Public Records Act for

records of local agencies related to (pay and benefits bargaining with employees) that reveal a local agency’s deliberative processes, impressions, evaluations, opinions, recommendations, meeting minutes, research, work products, theories, or strategy, or that provide instruction, advice, or training to employees who do not have full collective bargaining and representation rights under that chapter.

The bill was not requested or supported by local agencies themselves, but rather by the organizations that apparently wanted to keep it politically safe for their employers to be generous at the bargaining table:

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, District Council; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 685; Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs; Association of Deputy District Attorneys; California Professional Firefighters; Laborers’ Internat ional Union of North America, Local 777; Laborers’ International Union of North America, Local 792; Los Angeles County Deputy Probation Officers Union; Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association; Los Angeles Police Protective League; Orange County Employees Association; Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, Local 3631; Organization of SMUD Employees; Peace Officers Research Association of California; Riverside Sheriffs’ Association; San Diego County Court Employees Association; San Luis Obispo County Employees Association; and United Public Employees.

AB 1455 was sold by its author and backers as simply extending to local agency labor relations a strategizing confidentiality that state boards and commissions had enjoyed for years. But this purported “balance,” said Californians Aware in its request for a veto, is illusory, since state employers and employee bargaining units must “sunshine” their negotiations in specific public proceedings not required of cities, counties and special districts. By contrast at the local level, only school and community college districts are required to sunshine their bargaining under similar rules in Government Code section 3547.5, of which the California Supreme Court has observed, ” although the public is excluded from actual negotiating sessions … its opportunity to be fully informed and to express its views is preserved.”

To preserve that opportunity, AB 1455 should have been amended to include a sunshine process that mirrors the one governing state agency employee relations in Government Code section 3523. Failing to do so means that while the public can learn a good deal about goals and progress in bargaining with state employees in time to make their views heard, they’re left in the dark about city, county or special district employees’ pay and benefit  negotiations—before, during and after the bargaining takes place.

Tomorrow: Using the Public Records Act to gain what insights are left into into local government collective bargaining.