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Open tentative contracts to public scrutiny

To advance the cause of transparency, Illinois needs a law that requires newly-negotiated government employee contracts to be released, with public hearings held on them, before a final vote can be taken.

Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

Gov. Pat Quinn, in his State of the State address Wednesday, described his initiatives for jobs, education, and the economy.

In a speech delivered 5 years to the day after he assumed office from disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Quinn briefly mentioned the ethical woes he inherited back then.

“First, we restored integrity to state government, passing a strong new ethics code, campaign finance reform and a new constitutional amendment to allow voters to recall any governor guilty of corruption,” the governor said.

That sentence amounted to Quinn’s only reference, such as it was, to governmental openness and accountability in Illinois.

We believe more work needs to be done.

One area where greater openness is needed deals with contracts negotiated through collective bargaining between public employee unions and units of government, such as school districts, cities, and the like.

Currently, units of government believe they are not required to release such contracts until after they have been approved.

After a tentative agreement is reached, negotiators for both sides usually take the stance that it’s none of the public’s business what the contract contains. The taxpayers who foot the bill traditionally aren’t allowed to see it until the union members ratify it and the board or council casts its vote in the affirmative.

Such a closed, clubby process sticks in our craw.

After all, the need for secrecy – if one even recognizes that need – no longer exists after a tentative contract is reached. The negotiating has ended, and neither side can gain an advantage from disclosure.

And certainly, after the public employees vote to ratify, the school district gains no advantage by keeping the details under wraps.

In recent years, we have made the point as various local governments went about the contract negotiation process, with mixed results.

In 2009, officials for the city of Sterling failed to release, in advance of the council’s ratification vote, the terms of an amended contract that was negotiated with firefighters.

In 2012, the Sterling School District failed to release, in advance of the board’s ratification vote, the contract it had negotiated with teachers.

However, in 2013, at our strong urging, the Dixon School District released its 55-page contract with striking Dixon teachers one day before the school board’s scheduled vote.

Also last year, the Dixon City Council gave the public 14 days to inspect its tentative contract with the police union before it was put to a vote.

The issue resurfaced in January when, in nearby Mendota, the teachers union and elementary school district reached a tentative contract agreement the day before a scheduled Jan. 13 strike. Despite Sauk Valley Media’s Freedom of Information Act request for the tentative contract, the Mendota Elementary School District would not release it until after the board approved it on Jan. 17.

That’s why we believe legislation filed last year by state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Republican from Wheaton, is sorely needed.

Ives’ bill would require all newly negotiated contracts between unions and public-sector employers (school districts, cities, counties, the state, etc.) to be posted on the public body’s website for at least 14 days before any action is taken.

Further, after at least 14 days, the public entity would be required to convene an open meeting and receive public comments before a vote is taken.

Such a system would help elected board members, public employees, and the public better understand the contents of proposed contracts. The 14-day window would also allow members of the public to find out how much additional money those tentative contracts would cost them.

Unfortunately, Ives’ bill is stuck in a Democratic-controlled committee, where it will likely never emerge without help.

We call on Sauk Valley area representatives to sign on as co-sponsors to Rep. Ives’ contract transparency bill.

We further call on them to do what they can to advance it, and along with it the cause of openness and accountability in government.

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