Let public preview public agreements
State law should require contracts with public employees to be subject to a public hearing before being approved.
Illinois law needs to require that the public be involved before a public body may approve a contract with public employees.
With that many mentions of “public,” you might not think that approval of such contracts is a largely private process.
That is why the Open Meetings Act should be amended to require a public hearing on any public employee contract before a vote. And the terms of the contract – including a fiscal impact statement – should be released at least 48 hours beforehand.
We suggested that amendment in a letter we sent last week to the Illinois attorney general. Our political suggestion was included with a legal request that the attorney general’s public access counselor review the Sterling School Board’s recent approval of a contract with the teachers’ union.
Three weeks ago today, an editorial here explained how we had been denied access to that contract. As it turned out, we were twice denied – first before, then after the school board voted to approve what the agenda described as “a two-year collective bargaining agreement with the Sterling Education Association. ...”
The second denial was clearly illegal. The first might be – and if it’s not, it should be.
It’s not that we were eager to slog through more than a hundred pages of the agreement. The point is, government transparency should make the entire process more public friendly But such contracts normally are negotiated and approved before the public has any idea what has happened.
As we pointed out in that June 27 editorial, the Sterling City Council approved a contract amendment with firefighters in late 2009 before publicly revealing the terms of the agreement.
At our urging, the Sterling school board was a bit more forthcoming, explaining before the vote some salary and insurance provisions of the contract.
The law requires public hearings on annual budgets that are considered by public bodies. It seems to us that because of the financial impact of public employee contracts, which dictate terms of salaries and benefits, they should be subject to similar public scrutiny before they are approved.
While the negotiating process itself requires some privacy to protect the bargaining strategy of a public body, the need for secrecy ends once an agreement is reached. At that point, there is no need to hide the contract from the public, which will pay for those salaries and benefits.
Our request for the Sterling schools settlement was denied, according to Superintendent R. Tad Everett, because of two exceptions in the Freedom of Information Act. He wrote:
“Exemption (f) clearly states that negotiation ‘preliminary drafts, notes, and recommendations’ are exempt from FOIA. Maybe not as relevant, but Exemption (p) also states that ‘records related to collective negotiations’ are exempt.”
Everett’s letter said the denial was made “by the advice of our district’s legal counsel, ...” so we are not sure who did the creative editing of the statute. But here are those exemptions in their full context:
“(f) Preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated, except that a specific record or relevant portion of a record shall not be exempt when the record is publicly cited and identified by the head of the public body.“
“(p) Records relating to collective negotiating matters between public bodies and their employees or representatives, except that any final contract or agreement shall be subject to inspection and copying.”
We will let you know what the attorney general says.