Auburn City Council weighs making labor talks more public

Policy would put Auburn at ‘edge’ of transparency trend
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Cities across California are trending toward more transparency in their dealings, and the Auburn City Council is preparing to look at a policy that would put them “at the edge” of that movement, said City Attorney Michael Colantuono.

Auburn Mayor Kevin Hanley believes more transparency and sunshine in its bargaining process could help ensure one council doesn’t make a mess another has to clean up for residents by adopting a contract that it can’t afford, he said in his report.

On Monday, the Auburn City Council voted 5-0 in favor of his measure to direct staff to analyze a policy that would give the public a broader window into its contract negotiations with city employees.

The city spends about 70 to 75 cents of every tax dollar on employee wages and benefits every year, according to a council report.

“As a council member, they never tell you you’re going to spend hours and hours and hours in closed session related to these kind of contracts, and they’re really important to attracting good employees, keeping good employees, ensuring that they’re fiscally responsible,” and ensuring residents are provided with the most possible municipal services, Hanley said.  

“I’m darn proud of the proposals we put forward in good times and bad, and I’m not afraid to put them out to the public with price tags. And I think sunshine and transparency are the wave of the future.”

Currently, the details of contract negotiations are only made public once the deal is finalized, and that comes with a one-year fiscal impact analysis.

Under Hanley’s measure, both parties’ initial proposals would be made public along with a cost analysis. Furthermore, once a contract is agreed upon after closed-door negotiations, council can only adopt it after a two-week public review period of the deal’s details with at least a one- and five-year fiscal impact analysis.

Colantuono said this is the first city policy he’s aware of that would expose initial proposals of bargaining units, and that it would make them public much earlier in the process – resulting in both positive and negative consequences.

“We have always known at the end of the day that the deal has been made public. This requires a little more information than that, it gives the public some time. So I think it will influence how folks bargain,” he said. “It could influence for the good by helping people be public-minded in their proposals. It could influence it for the bad by encouraging people to posture in ways they think will drive public opinion but not necessarily drive the best interest of the city – but this is a cohesive enough community with enough access to its leaders that I’m not worried about that here.”

Councilman Keith Nesbitt echoed Colantuono’s concern that this could lead to more posturing – saying anyone who is unfamiliar with the term should recall the charter city measure from June’s ballot. But, he joined the council’s chorus of opinion that more sunshine on labor negotiations would be beneficial.

“I also like the trend towards more transparency in all that we do,” Nesbitt said. “And I don’t mind being on the ‘edge,’ as one might say.”  

Hanley’s idea is based on the City of Chico’s adopted policy.

“My understanding is Chico in 2006, 2007 had a lot of labor disputes, so they moved toward this transparency in bargaining proposal to try to get over those disputes,” he said. “And I think it’s working better for them.”

Broadening the fiscal impact analysis would help avoid problems down the road, said Councilman Dr. Bill Kirby, who added he’s “100 percent in favor” of the policy.

“I’m especially in favor of the five-year analysis,” Kirby said. “Too many communities in the state of California have gotten in serious trouble by agreeing to labor agreements where the fiscal impact was not felt until years down the road.”

Hanley said he estimates a report from city staff on the policy to come in January or February.

He hopes the policy would eliminate a problem that has frustrated him during his 10 years on council, he said.

“It’s not always clear that when we as a council transmit our proposal to the bargaining unit that it gets to all the rank-and-file members of the unit, so I think the city employees lose that they are not made aware of the details of which we propose,” Hanley said. “Secondly, I’ve seen numerous instances where the assigned negotiator for that bargaining unit puts forth proposals that would benefit that negotiator – and sometimes at the expense of the rank-and-file employees.”

The city’s current policy allows transparency of the bargaining proposals only if agreed to by both the council and the negotiators of the other group. The City Council receives status updates into labor negotiations at closed sessions.

The city and the Auburn Police Officers Association are currently in negotiations for a new contract, and the council met in closed session for a conference with labor negotiators Monday, one of about a dozen such meetings this year.


Jon Schultz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews