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Commentary By Lise Bang-Jensen

Contracts Should Be Made Public for the Taxpayer Before They are Finally ratified

Cities New York City

The financial crisis, rooted in a lack of disclosure about the true costs of exotic securities, has dramatized the need for greater transparency and accountability in both the private and public sector.

But many counties, municipalities and school districts across New York state keep the public in the dark about tentative labor contracts, which are a key driver of local property taxes. Contract details frequently are kept secret until after the deals are ratified — when it is too late for pesky taxpayers to scrutinize them, comment or seek changes.

In Troy, for example, when the city school district and the teachers union announced a tentative contract in early October, the district refused to reveal details before the school board ratified it.

Why the secrecy about tentative contracts? In Utica, a school board member offered this justification for withholding information about a proposed teachers’ contract: “If it’s released, the O-D [Observer-Dispatch] could write an editorial on what is right or wrong with the contract and influence board members’ votes.”

Wait a minute. Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?

Back to table

So what happens if elected officials reject a proposed collective bargaining agreement? The same thing as when union members vote no. The two sides return to the bargaining table to strike a better deal.

The state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) presumes the public’s right to government documents — with limited exemptions. For example, a government may withhold information if disclosure “would impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining agreements.”

The exemption is not intended to continue indefinitely. “Once a contract goes to union rank-and-file members, negotiations are over,” says Robert Freeman of the Committee on Open Government.

Nevertheless, many officials continue to exploit the law’s “impairment” clause as an excuse for non-disclosure. Absence of public scrutiny can lead to costly consequences, as taxpayers in Johnson City are discovering.

When the village of Johnson City and its firefighters union reached a tentative agreement earlier this year, village officials adopted a self-imposed gag order, refusing to disclose details until after they ratified the contact.

Only after the trustees’ vote did residents of this economically struggling community outside Binghamton discover that firefighters would be getting a 31 percent raise over five years. (They were hardly underpaid. Under the prior contract, their starting salaries exceeded those of firefighters of New York City and nearby Binghamton and Endicott.)

Angry citizens, demanding answers, packed the next board meeting. A bigger shock came a few weeks later. Village officials had miscalculated: the five-year pay raise actually totals 41 percent.

Firefighters won’t renegotiate. The village of 15,000 people faces a major budget shortfall. This might have been avoided if the contract had gotten a public airing prior to ratification, allowing taxpayers or newspaper editorials writers to sound the alarm. Instead taxpayers are paying dearly for the trustees’ secrecy.

Grand Jury report

How can the law be improved to ensure that the public has a real right to know? A report by a grand jury in Suffolk County two years ago suggests an answer. Based on its probe of financial irregularities in local school districts, the panel found “an abject lack of transparency regarding the issue for which school districts spend the overwhelming majority of their funds — salaries and benefits for their employees.”

The grand jury recommended that all pending school district contracts — including collective bargaining agreements and superintendent employment contracts — be posted on district Web sites at least one month before school board ratification votes. Copies also should be available at district offices and local libraries, the panel said.

The grand jury recommendations offer an excellent starting point for broader reform of state FOIL provisions affecting collective bargaining agreements. In the interest of promoting greater financial and managerial transparency, advance disclosure of tentative contracts also should include:

- The net financial impact of all provisions, including annualized and cumulative costs of proposed changes in salary schedules, benefits and work-rules, compared to a starting “base year” estimate of expenditures in each category;

- A breakdown of any savings attributed to union concessions or “givebacks,” with an explanation of the methodology used to produce these estimates;

- Proposed salary increases on an annualized and cumulative percentage basis, with a separate breakdown of average percentage increases including step and longevity increments; and

- An estimate of the projected impact on taxes over the life of the contract — assuming no increase in state or federal aid to cover contract costs.

No law currently bars the release of such details once negotiations conclude. In fact, in some localities, the mayor or other elected officials join union leaders in announcing tentative contracts — although details may be sketchy.

Unfortunately, in the absence of an affirmative disclosure requirement, it appears many other government officials are inclined toward secrecy rather than transparency in such matters.

Secrecy over employee contracts — that commit localities potentially to millions of dollars of new spending over three, four or more years — is unjustifiable, especially during an economic downturn. Citizens have right to know how their tax dollars are being spent — before it’s too late to speak up.

Information delayed is information denied.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Gazette

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Gazette