Public employee unions in California hold tremendous political power, influencing both policy and politicians with tremendous effectiveness. We described the depth and breadth of this influence in our brief recently filed in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Unions have a special ability to wield their power behind closed doors, as collective bargaining negotiations between the unions and their “adversaries” are exempt from laws requiring public disclosure. In most of California, the public’s only chance to discover what elected officials have agreed to give unions is when the final agreement is on the public agenda for approval, at the very end of the process. This is nothing more than a rubber stamp, and taxpayers who complain are brushed aside because their concerns are raised “too late.”
A handful of California cities, counties, and special districts enacted transparency laws called “Civic Openness in Negotiations” (COIN) ordinances that require public release of collective bargaining offers and counter-offers in a timely manner on the city’s website, along with analysis by an independent financial expert. Residents have opportunities during council meetings to comment on negotiations and, once the bargaining agreement is finalized, it is subject to public review and comment for at least two council meetings before the vote. This is plain, old-fashioned sunshine-style good government. The public employee unions therefore worked with union-friendly legislators to kill it. They lined up behind Senate Bill 331, by state Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), that penalizes COIN jurisdictions—and only COIN jurisdictions—by imposing onerous and expensive auditing and review requirements on them. The name of Senate Bill 331 gives the game away: “the Civic Reporting Openness in Negotiations Efficiency Act, or CRONEY.” Seriously. This is not The Onion. Governor Brown signed this gift to the unions into law last Friday. Taxpayers, as usual, are left in the cold, and in the dark.