Sunshine over Chico staff’s shoulder

City Council approves transparent negotiations

Just after 8 p.m. Tuesday (Sept. 16), with Chico City Council Chambers emptying out, Scott Gruendl walked around to the front of the dais as Mayor Andy Holcombe answered questions from a pad-toting inquirer standing before him.

“Are you asking him about the record,” the councilman asked, referring to the duration of the meeting—including a Redevelopment Agency session—that took just 87 minutes to complete.

No, the topic was the newly adopted policy for more-transparent labor negotiations, but Gruendl’s point was apropos, considering how a suggestion of his cleared a bog-down during the deliberation on the policy.

The most vocal champion of “sunshining” contract talks has been Councilman Larry Wahl, who has argued that closed-door negotiations have resulted in the inflated pay-and-benefits packages that led to the city’s budget shortfall. The new policy got unanimous approval from the city’s Internal Affairs Committee. That recommendation broke the process into three parts:

• Initial offers, which would be made public along with analysis of their fiscal impacts;

• Negotiations, which would continue to take place behind closed doors (and council updates provided in closed session);

• Council approval, which would occur formally only after the public had at least two weeks to review the contract and a fiscal-impact analysis. The vote would be placed on the regular agenda as opposed to the consent agenda.

Councilmembers readily agreed to a two-step approval along the lines of city ordinances, which require a final reading and vote at a subsequent meeting before adoption.

But they hit a snag when Stephanie Taber, a Chico resident who attended the Internal Affairs meeting, raised a question about how the policy would apply to current negotiations—the renewal of the police officers’ contract and the renegotiation of cost-of-living allowances in other unions’ pacts.

Councilwoman Mary Flynn, who ultimately cast the lone dissenting vote for other reasons, argued that the process shouldn’t be changed mid-stream. IAC member Steve Bertagna agreed to a degree, though on general principle he stated, “I can’t think of a reason I’d be afraid to have most of the [negotiating] conversation in public.”

At issue, too, were “openers"—terms in contracts that potentially could be reworked, such as the COLA reduction the city has requested from all its unions. City Manager Dave Burkland said City Hall and the firefighters, for instance, aren’t officially negotiating COLA percentages; they’re in “informal talks” (which Flynn called “a conversation").

Nomenclature aside, councilmembers had different takes on what constituted a new negotiation for the purposes of triggering the proposed sunshining.

The haziness remained even after Wahl made a motion to adopt the policy, Vice Mayor Ann Schwab seconded it pending clarification, and Bertagna offered a friendly amendment worded more like a piece of advice, telling the bargaining groups that it was in their best interest to step up sooner rather than later, because “the moment this takes effect, the public will need to be involved.”

When would that be? Gruendl made a suggestion: “Let’s put an effective time—say, 60 days.”

Bertagna worked that into his amendment, which Wahl and Schwab OK’d. The 6-1 vote made it city policy.

Afterward (around 8:05), Holcombe praised Gruendl’s suggestion. “It’s an acknowledgement that we shouldn’t change the rules midstream,” he said, “but we’re going to have a different stream in 60 days.”

Flynn fears that stream will get clogged by posturing and rhetoric. She said her research into other cities found such policies are “calculated more to politicize the process,” and, she noted after the meeting, “it’s not like the public doesn’t have the opportunity to comment [on contracts] now—they do.”

In two months, Chicoans will have more opportunities. Bertagna, for one, appreciates the added transparency, as well as the incentive aspect of the grace period. Union leaders comfortable with the old process may find motivation to turn “informal talks” into action in regard to COLA.

“We made assumptions in the budget [when councilmembers approved it], and if the assumptions aren’t realized through a negotiated process, the council will have to make decisions on other cuts to get there,” he added. “These are real numbers we have to achieve, one way or another. We’re dead serious about this.”

Tuesday night’s proceedings went so quickly that Sue Hilderbrand, the Chico Peace and Justice Center director who planned to speak on a later item, arrived in what ordinarily would have been plenty of time but found the council chambers virtually deserted. Fortunately for her, Holcombe steered the discussion on designating Chico a fair-trade city toward inclusion on the Oct. 21 agenda.