The Coeur d’Alene City Council will spend wisely if it commits funding to a third party to negotiate contracts with its three unions.
This Tuesday night, the Council is expected to consider investing $8,000 to $12,000 in an attorney who would represent the city in bargaining sessions with the Coeur d’Alene Police Association, whose contract with the city expires in September.
Committing $135 an hour for 70 hours to a local attorney is sure to stir up those who believe the city already spends excessively. That it’s a union issue with the money coming from taxpayers on both ends of the hose — paying a third party to negotiate with a public employee group — will add a little more gasoline to the bonfire of anti-tax passions.
But if the city is going to be tied to unions at all — and Coeur d’Alene is the only one in Kootenai County that is, since 1999 — a third-party negotiator is imperative. The existing negotiations are so fatally flawed, any other option would be an improvement.
As it stands now, contracts with all three of the city’s collective bargaining units — the police, the firefighters and the catch-all Lake City Employees Association — are negotiated on behalf of the city by three of its department heads. The problem? Those department heads and the few city employees who have chosen not to join a union all receive the same raises and added benefits as the unions they’re negotiating with.
That puts the city’s negotiators in the enviable position of improving their lots right along with those sitting across the table from them. In essence, they’re negotiating against themselves, and there’s not much motivation for talking yourself out of a nice fat raise or better benefits.
The current negotiation method, of course, reeks of conflict of interest. Even if the city’s negotiators work feverishly to keep wages and benefits within a reasonable range, the perception of conflict remains and hard feelings with fellow public servants can fester. Only a third party can help.
Even then, not everybody will be happy. If the police union receives pay raises and/or additional benefits that some citizens consider too generous, the third-party negotiator will be criticized as too soft and the City Council will be charged with passing the buck and making itself less accountable to the community.
So be it. In our view, the council will improve confidence with its more reasonable constituents by no longer using its administrators to bargain on the taxpayers’ behalf, and it will get three key administrators off the hook of negotiating in an arena where they’re damned one way or the other.