What Orange County can teach Sacramento about transparency in local government

‘It seems nuts to have the most essential decisions facing a local government being made in secret’

Don’t laugh, but maybe Orange County has something to teach us about good government here in Sacramento.

Orange County, a.k.a. Red County, the sprawling home of John Wayne, the “kill the gays” ballot measure and, in the ’90s, the nation’s then-largest municipal bankruptcy? Good government?

It’s called the Civic Openness In Negotiations process, or COIN. It started in the O.C. city of Costa Mesa, as a way to shine a light on collective bargaining with public employee unions.

The model has come up in public meetings hosted by Eye on Sacramento and the Sacramento Chapter of the League of Women Voters as part of their ongoing ethics and transparency project.

Here’s the problem: Labor negotiations between the City of Sacramento and its various unions—cops, firefighters, office workers, etc.—happen over the course of several months and take place entirely behind closed doors.

And the public, which is footing the bill, doesn’t know what’s in any contract until the deal is done. Sure, there’s a city council vote. But that’s mostly a formality. “At that point, it’s over. It’s done,” says former Sacramento City Manager Bill Edgar, who’s been through this process a few times. “It’s just unrealistic to think you’re going to unravel that at a council meeting at the end.”

A related problem is that the city council people who are there to represent the public interest are in office in large part because of the generous campaign donations they receive from the unions they are negotiating with.

A good example of the process is the surprisingly sweet deal firefighters got with the city back in January. The firefighters agreed to pay more of their own pension costs, but also got 12 percent raises, costing the city an additional $8 million over the next two years. None of this information was made public until a few days before the city council unanimously approved the contract.

The city of Costa Mesa and the county government of Orange County are trying a different approach. COIN requires the details of all the offers and counter-offers between the government and labor unions to be made public as negotiations go along. And an independent auditor provides a running breakdown of the costs of each proposal.

Craig Powell with the local government watchdog group Eye on Sacramento thinks the COIN model would be good way for Sacramento citizens to keep costs down and increase government transparency. “This way, the public and elected officials can see what the real costs are. If the costs are out of line or unfair, people can call bullshit,” says Powell.

The problem with the COIN approach is pretty obvious. “The unions are going to hate it,” says Edgar.

They certainly do in Orange County. There’s a complaint from the state Public Employees Relations Board alleging that COIN violates workers’ rights to collective bargaining.

COIN has been in place for one budget cycle in the city of Costa Mesa. But Jennifer Muir with the Orange County Employees Association says it hasn’t achieved the cost savings that were promised. And she says COIN could be used to politicize bargaining.

Muir also said it’s unfair that contracts with private companies don’t get the same scrutiny. The union complains that billions in private contracts are awarded by county government, with little public information about how lobbying and campaign donations affect contracting decisions.

And an Orange County grand jury recently complained that O.C. has “historically been a hotbed of corruption, conflict of interest and abuse of authority,” owing to the influence developer money.

OK, so not a great model for good government in every regard. Interestingly, the O.C. grand jury has twice recommended adoption of an ethics commission to watchdog government corruption. That’s one of the major reforms being examined by Eye On Sacramento and the League of Women Voters, too.

Bites is no union-basher; you can get that from any number of other newspaper columns in this town. And it seems obvious enough that some people see COIN as a good way to stick it to unions.

But Peter Scheer with the California First Amendment Coalition says that doesn’t make greater transparency a bad idea. “You can be pro-labor and still want to ask these questions,” says Scheer, a self-described progressive Democrat. He argues that secrecy around collective bargaining is driving local governments toward bankruptcy, as in Vallejo a few years back. He’s not sure if COIN is the right model, but says there should be a way to shine more light on labor contracts.

“It seems nuts to have the most essential decisions facing a local government being made in secret,” Scheer added.