Stealth contracts defy public interest

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chairman who contributes regularly to the Chico News & Review.

When I recently called city officials to check on progress of the firefighters’ new five-year contract, I learned it had been unanimously approved without discussion as an obscure consent agenda item along with nine others at the July 17 City Council meeting.

If this item hadn’t somehow slipped by me, I would have asked pragmatic Councilman Larry Wahl, who has expressed interest in bringing employee largess under control, to lift it from the consent agenda for public discussion so taxpayers could learn about the sweet deal the firefighters will enjoy and see how once again the city has been overly generous to the public safety (fire and police) sector that uses 71 percent of all city revenue. Chico’s five public sector unions as a group currently devour 80 percent—and growing—of all city revenue and are the main reason city spending is in the red and getting redder.

Let’s highlight the basic details not shown to the public. In brief, the firefighters will get less in wages but more in benefits, which means no change overall.

They will receive a 5 percent wage increase for 2007-08 and 4 percent bumps each year for the next four years. Ah, but the opulent benefits! The firemen won a package worth 62 percent of payroll—up from 53 percent in the last contract.

Thus, for every dollar the city pays these folks in wages, it will pay another 62 cents in benefits. Few of our nation’s private sector companies pay benefits worth even 15 percent of payroll.

Chico’s troubled money situation, in which our city leaders spend more of Other People’s Money (OPM) from the dwindling reserve pot each year, has developed partly out of the secret bargaining process by which expensive union contracts—mainly police and fire—evolve behind closed doors and then quietly appear as done deals.

What the unions want and the counter offers by the city could be open—as is the case with our public-school teachers union demands that cause such a furor—because no law provides a secrecy veil.

The doors are closed simply because of “tradition and practice,” meaning that’s the way it’s always been done. The law gives broad discretion to local government to form its own rules, and, not surprisingly, things early on became secret. Public officials at all levels love secrecy, which is why the Ralph M. Brown Open Meeting Act exists. The Brown Act preamble states, in fact, the assumption that “the people’s business should be done in public.”

Note to the council: Open the doors for the upcoming police contract.