BY JACOB SZETO
PORTLAND- TriMet and the Multnomah County District Attorney have denied the public access to key documents that will determine the outcome of current labor negotiations at the public transit agency.
These labor negotiations will determine such things as salary, wages and fringe benefits. In a single year these items cost around $250 million. Multiplied by three for the length of the contract and discounted for non-union employees, the new contract is easily worth much more than half a billion dollars. These negotiations are also occurring concurrent to budget cuts that are slashing into bus and other transit services due to a budget shortfall at the agency.
The key documents that were denied public access were the initial proposals. TriMet and the DA stated that is not in the public’s best interest to see them and that it would hurt frank communication if the public were to examine them. Initial proposals are the offers TriMet and employee union (ATU) present to each other. These documents are a key to the outcome of the labor negotiations because they generally set the parameters of the final contract.
The law used to deny the public records request exempts records allowed for public viewing if they are of an advisory nature and are preliminary to a final decision only if “the public body shows that in the particular instance the public interest in encouraging frank communication between officials and employees of public bodies clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
TriMet argued that the initial proposals are of an advisory nature because they are used to show the relative position of the two parties. They also argued that the release of the documents would hinder their negotiations, thus they were exempt from releasing them. TriMet offered no explanation beyond that “disclosure would interfere with the free flow of information and concepts that TriMet needs for its efficient operation.”
The Multnomah County DA agreed with TriMet’s decision during the appeal process and offered no more explanation as to why the release of the document would hinder frank communications. The DA stated that “the release of initial proposals during PECBA mandated negotiation sessions is premature and not in the public interest.”
After the initial proposals the negotiations can follow one of two paths. The first path is that of agreement. If both sides come to a tentative agreement, the tentative contract is sent to the union for ratification and then to the TriMet board for approval. The contract will not be seen by the public until the TriMet board meets to approve it, leaving no practical time for public scrutiny. This means a complicated lengthy public employee contract worth north of half a billion dollars will have only minutes to be reviewed by the public.
The second path offers little more in transparency. If, after the initial proposals, the two sides cannot come to an agreement, final offers will be submitted which then will be released to the public upon written request. But this path still does not allow for the public to see the entire contract; only the parts of which the two parties cannot agree will be released.
Until either the DA or TriMet decide it is in the public’s best interest to see these contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars before they are approved, labor contracts will continue to go unchecked by those who ultimately pay for them.