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Public is asked for help, then told to get lost

After this column recently mentioned the state pension fix proposed by former Sterling attorney David Murray, the editor heard from some readers who still hold a grudge against the retired lawyer.

One called Murray a “hatchet man” who had been hired by many local school boards “to go after teachers during negotiations.”

Another reader, a retired teacher, wrote that Murray had once told teachers, in the midst of bargaining, that “if we wanted more money, we should get second jobs at McDonald’s.”

We tried to explain that was just the adversarial nature of collective bargaining, that Murray was being the forceful advocate that his clients were paying him to be.

But it’s hard to tell teachers not to take it personally when those negotiations affect their pay and benefits.

As we found out in Dixon, people take contract disputes very personally.

NEWS REPORTS ABOUT the recently ended strike by Dixon teachers focused on the two sides at the bargaining table.

But those stories had more than two sides, and the newspaper itself could not help but be drawn into the public discussion about the difficult negotiations and related work stoppage.

We see our job as three-fold in such major events of public interest:

1) Provide fair and accurate news reports about the issues and people involved in an attempt to answer relevant questions and arm citizens with information to help them understand what is going on

2) Give the community a forum in which to express opinions about the issues involved

3) Offer our own opinions on those issues as well as others that we think should be part of the public debate

That’s what we do.

ALL PARTIES INVOLVED in a public dispute are subject to scrutiny.

That includes this newspaper, for its coverage and its commentary.

So, it was not unexpected that we found ourselves the target of some criticism.

“It’s apparent Sauk Valley Media is biased in it’s reporting, and its reporters are trying to vilify the School Board instead of RESEARCHING the Law prior to posting accusations,” one reader wrote on the comments section of saukvalley.com.

“The ‘press’ is not smart enough to realize they are being manipulated!” another poster suggested.

“If the press is going to quote the law to levy insinuations against people violating the law, then the press ought to learn the law,” scolded another.

You know what they say about war: Truth is always the first casualty.

BECAUSE NEWSPAPERS deal regularly with public access laws, we have a pretty good understanding of how they work.

So, when the teachers union complained last weekend that the school board had violated the state’s Open Meetings Act, we were more than a little interested.

And because the allegation came during the strike, the issue was especially newsworthy. So we published a story about it.

We take seriously any violation of public access laws.

But at worst, it seems, the school board is guilty of failing to provide public notice for a meeting that the public could not have attended anyway.

Nothing, however, is quite that simple.

ILLINOIS LAW ALLOWS a public body to meet in a closed session only after it first convenes a public meeting so it can vote to kick out the public. Minutes of the public meeting must record the board’s vote as well as the legal justification for closing the meeting.

And that brief public meeting must have complied with the Open Meetings Act regarding public notice.

The Dixon School Board failed to provide that notice, or convene publicly, before it met in a closed session March 8 to discuss contract negotiating matters.

The board’s attorney said no notice was required because of the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act, which says, “[T]he provisions of the Open Meetings Act shall not apply to collective bargaining negotiations. ...”

But in a ruling in February 2012, a Sangamon County Circuit Court judge ruled, “[T]his Court cannot find that ... the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act ... somehow overrides or supersedes the Open Meetings Act.”

The judge narrowly interpreted the labor law to apply only to “collective bargaining negotiations” by a bargaining committee, not to “collective negotiating matters” that are discussed by the full board as covered by the Open Meetings Act. While both may close the discussions to the public, the public must be notified of the full board’s meeting.

So, the teachers union made a public issue out of that violation of the law because it wanted to take a shot at the board in the heat of the negotiations battle.

Now that the strike is over ... well, we don’t expect to hear anything more about it. The teachers union has no real interest in open government.

But that’s the law – so far. You can look it up.

TAXPAYERS MAY BE excused if they get frustrated with the game-playing in collective bargaining.

The most obvious game is the one that negotiators on both sides play with the public.

During negotiations, they ask the public to pressure the other side to give up more to reach a settlement.

So they trot out their talking points – then complain when the other side does the same.

And then the cruelest trick of all comes at the end: Although nothing prevents them from releasing the terms of the tentative settlement, negotiators agree not to let the public know what was decided until after it has been approved.

The state’s Freedom of Information Act says that when it comes to collective bargaining matters, “[A]ny final contract or agreement shall be subject to copying and inspection.”

Isn’t it time for that little game to end?

YOU MIGHT THINK that despite their promise to teachers to keep the agreement a secret until after it’s approved, some school board members might feel guilty – or apprehensive – about the position they’ve created for three colleagues who will be on the ballot for re-election in less than a month.

Three current board members – two of them members of the negotiating committee – are among six candidates for four open seats in the April 9 election.

Basically, the teachers union does not want the contract to be made public until it’s too late for the public to do anything about it. That’s not unique to local teachers – it’s a tactic straight out of the union playbook.

That puts the board in the position of telling taxpayers – and voters – that they don’t need to know the contract’s terms and costs until after it’s a done deal. Just shut up and pay up.

Back when they were seeking the public’s support, both the board and the teachers union released details of their contract offers and counter-offers. But now that the dispute is settled, the public is being told to mind its own business.

When a candidate is asking for votes, that has to be a tough message to deliver.

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