The Costa Mesa City Council this week approved an ordinance that would make city labor negotiations more transparent, despite objections from residents that the extra sunshine still leaves other council dealings in the dark.
The ordinance, dubbed Civic Openness In Negotiations (COIN), requires an independent fiscal review of current union agreements that would be publicized 30 days before the first negotiation meeting between city officials and union representatives. After that, the auditor would create reports about new proposals.
Unions will be required under the ordinance to use a representative who is not employed by the city and will not benefit from the negotiated terms. City Council members must also disclose any communication made with the union representative that pertains to pending negotiations. And all offers and counteroffers no longer being considered will also be made public.
COIN "will be the first ordinance in the nation that gives the taxpayers the maximum transparency when it comes to contracts with public employee bargaining unions," said Councilman Steve Mensinger, who introduced the ordinance.
Mensinger said that transparency will shift the balance of power during negotiations, making it difficult for unions to manipulate naive council members into approving unsustainable agreements. "Nobody has any clue how we got to over $75 million in benefits for employees," he said.
Mensinger and other members of the Republican-led council majority argue that years of capitulating to union demands have resulted in a city budget that is out of whack.
Critics of the majority’s approach, including the city’s employee unions, say the council is driven by an ideological agenda to outsource government and have overblown the severity of the city’s financial condition.
Of the 12 residents that spoke during public comment, most viewed the ordinance as too narrow and one-sided because it pertained only to unions. Many said it should include disclosure of communication between council members and any person seeking business with the city.
Councilwoman Wendy Leece proposed such an ordinance last September, but it was voted down for being too broad.
"If you truly are for civic openness, then you'll be open for all things," said Sandy Genis, a former mayor of Costa Mesa.
Mensinger at first signaled that he would be open to changing the ordinance, but then made it clear that he still wanted the ordinance to target employee salaries and benefits, which are the bulk of the city’s expenses.
"If the ex parte [one-sided] communications involve part of the $75 million that we're discussing here, I'm fine with ex parte communications being put into this, if there's something we've missed in this, but I think we've addressed it," Mensinger said.
Mayor Eric Bever argued that "opening this up and turning it into a transparency ordinance for everything that we do would be ill-advised." However, Bever did not explain why a broader ordinance would be a bad idea.
Councilman Jim Righeimer said that other city dealings don’t require greater transparency because the giveaways don’t measure up to union agreements. He also said more transparency isn’t necessary because the council isn’t engaging in secret deal-making.
"Some people are trying to taint this council into saying somehow there's back room deals," Righeimer said. "I'm looking for that back room. I've never seen it.”
The ordinance was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Leece dissenting.
"If we're going to do it one way, we should do it 100 percent," Leece said.