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Dateline Dixon: Should contract talks be open?

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

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DIXON – When I asked school board attorney Stan Eisenhammer why contract talks are not conducted in open session, he grew a big Cheshire Cat smile.

"You'd be really bored," he joked.

He was only half kidding.

Negotiations between the Dixon School Board and the Dixon Education Association, as they are across the state, are conducted behind closed doors.

The question of opening up the talks to the public was raised during my "office hours" at Books on First on day 2 of the teachers strike.

A former New Englander, who lives in a region where those attending town hall meetings can vote, asked why, with so much at stake to the taxpayer in these talks, is there not more transparency?

Joking aside, the answer seemed obvious to Eisenhammer.

"When the public is involved, both sides could change their message to cater to the public, or have the public affect their message," Eisenhammer said.

"For instance, a member of the union's negotiating team could talk about making a concession that could be unpopular with their membership, and that could change how they negotiate or make it difficult for them to do their job."

John Brosnan, special counsel to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, said there's more good to be gained by keeping meetings closed. He hinted the process could be slowed by the public's involvement.

"A lot of times in negotiations, you'll have someone from one side say something off the record or float a trial balloon, these are idea proposals just to see if the other side would agree to what they are proposing," Brosnan said. "I imagine you'd have less of those in an open session and just stick to your position. There could be less of that back-and-forth."

Brosnan said the public could read too much into what's meant as a negotiating tactic.

"When negotiations open, usually one side gives a high offer and the other a low offer, I imagine if you opened up sessions, they'd stick closer to the middle."

Sticking to the middle? Having public input? Is that such a bad thing?

Florida conducts collective bargaining in open session in accordance with its Sunshine Laws for government transparency, and has reported no problems.

Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said the public can attend any session, but they rarely do. Usually the media, union members or local political gadflies attend — if that.

"It's not the most exciting thing available. It's a couple steps below your average board of education meeting," he said.

Pudlow said neither side has reported any real advantage, but meetings are less productive in front of a larger crowd. Larger crowds come only when negotiations get heated, and give their voice by raising their hands and wiggling their fingers when they like what they hear.

With that said, the environment is much different in Florida.

Teachers unions cannot strike, so they depend on public opinion to help their bargaining.

If both sides cannot reach an agreement there, an arbitrator makes a ruling, but it's nonbinding. The board does not have to follow it.

The election is the only power the union has. So maybe that's comparing apples and oranges.

Getting back to Dixon's case, residents have asked why both sides moved so little in 12 months, with movement coming only in the past weeks leading up to and during the strike.

The answer is vague at best, because ... well, we don't know.

Most everything plays out behind closed doors and each side tells its own story.

I will say, the board and the union have been gracious in sharing comments and offers with the media, with a few exceptions. And both sides have their rationale for when they don't share.

Brosnan said, unless rules are laid out in negotiations, there are no rules for what can be shared with the public after the sessions.

Let's hope both the Dixon Education Association and the Dixon school board continue to share information, because in Dixon, that's all we have until an agreement is reached.

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