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The Ghost of Scott Walker Visits Jerry Brown

Danny Feingold

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may have dropped out of the presidential race, but his influence is still haunting public workers, as evidenced by a bill that now sits on the desk of California Governor Jerry Brown. That legislation, SB 331 or the Civic Reporting Openness in Negotiations Efficiency Act (CRONEY), is the latest flashpoint in an ongoing war that Walker helped trigger when he moved to roll back the rights of public employee unions in early 2011.

While Walker was met with a huge backlash that drew protesters from across the country, in Orange County, local officials saw a green light to advance their own agenda against organized labor. Just a week after Walker signed Act 10, eviscerating collective bargaining rights for government workers in Wisconsin, the city of Costa Mesa issued layoff notices to nearly half its employees, paving the way for the outsourcing of hundreds of union jobs. A judge blocked the layoffs, but a year later, the conservative-dominated City Council struck back with a law known as Civic Openness in Negotiations. The ordinance specifically targeted labor negotiations, creating transparency requirements that do not apply to private contractors.

COIN laws, as they are known, have now been adopted in several other jurisdictions, including Fullerton, Beverly Hills and the County of Orange. While proponents argue that COIN statutes are nothing more than an effort to bring needed openness to negotiations between public sector unions and government, it’s hard to ignore the fact that COIN laws have gained traction in some of the state’s most right-leaning, anti-union enclaves.

Now Governor Brown must enter the fray, with either a veto or signature of SB 331. The bill would impose transparency requirements similar to those mandated by COIN ordinances, but for negotiations with private contracts. It would apply to any local jurisdiction where COIN laws have been enacted. The legislation, sponsored by State Senator Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), is backed by the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA) and other unions as well as outsourcing watchdog groups such as In the Public Interest.

SB 331 has triggered a wave of editorials urging the governor to veto it. The common motif of these pieces is that the bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – as the Los Angeles Times writes, “it purports to be about transparency but is clearly designed to achieve the opposite, seeking to punish cities that have adopted civic-openness ordinances for their public employee contracts by piling absurd layers of bureaucracy onto their private ones.” The Times, in a separate editorial, even called for other cities including Los Angeles to adopt COIN laws.

Missing from these broadsides, however, is any acknowledgement of the anti-union lineage of COIN, or the one-sided environment created in cities that have embraced it. “COIN was designed to make all our negotiations for the work we are contracted to perform public and open to public scrutiny and criticism, while allowing corporations and others who often compete for the same work to negotiate privately and in total secrecy until merely days before a public vote,” says Jennifer Muir, general manager of the OCEA.

Defenders of COIN have also been largely silent about the legal challenges that these laws have encountered. Orange County suspended its COIN ordinance last month, following a ruling in July that county officials had violated labor law with the passage of COIN in 2012. The judge concluded that Orange County’s passage of the COIN law “constitutes an unlawful unilateral change and a refusal to bargain in good faith.”

Republican State Senator John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), who proposed Orange County’s COIN law when he served as a supervisor, insists that SB 331 is a disingenuous attack by public sector unions. In an email to Capital & Main, Moorlach maintained that COIN laws are necessary because “the goal of the public employee unions is to suppress transparency. Once a governing body of a municipality agrees to a contract and it is approved by the bargaining unit, it is next to impossible for that governing body to oppose the contract once it goes to a public vote.” He scoffs at the idea of a need for balance between labor negotiations and those for private contracts. “Since contract RFPs [Requests for Proposals] are fine and bargaining unit negotiations are not, only one is screaming for transparency.”

That characterization is at odds with a body of evidence which has established a host of issues with private contracts. “Contracting problems inevitably happen when there isn’t adequate transparency and objective evaluation of costs, agency capacity to oversee contracts and strong community and legal standards,” says Donald Cohen, director of In the Public Interest. In 2013 his group released a study showing the shortcomings of existing sunshine laws. In fact, as the Voice of OC reports, transparency issues have recently plagued a number of major contractors in Orange County, the birthplace of COIN.

Muir points out that in Orange County, “the Grand Jury called out a ‘culture of corruption’ and several reports have called out the money changing hands between lobbyists, campaign contributors and public contractors. Statewide, issues related to public contracting are regularly exposed throughout the media.” She urges Governor Brown to sign SB 331 and put public workers back on equal footing with those who would like to privatize their work.

All sides agree that SB 331 is about more than transparency. Like its predecessor COIN, SB 331 is part of a much larger struggle for political leverage between public sector employees and their adversaries that shows no signs of abating.


Photo by Rafał Konieczny

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