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Should methods change for contract negotiations?

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
December 20, 2011
— Janesville City Council members surveyed said they are willing to discuss changes in the way the council negotiates employee contracts.

Some are more comfortable with the current process than others.


Council President Russ Steeber said he sees both the pros and cons of change.


Others, such as Kathy Voskuil and Deb Dongarra-Adams, said it's time the process changes in favor of more transparency.


Now, the council meets with the city manager in closed session to set negotiating parameters. A staff negotiating team meets with the unions, and the city manager finalizes the contracts with no council vote. Over the years, the manager to varying degrees has updated the council.


Initial proposals are never aired to the public, and a vote is never taken in public. Both practices run contrary to a state attorney general's opinion on open meetings.


The council might have abdicated its negotiating power to the city manager but would have had to do that in open session, Councilmember Tom McDonald said. He also is an attorney who has researched the issue.


Wald Klimczyk, city attorney, said the city has no policy or ordinance governing the city council's role in negotiations. He said the current process is just the way it's always been done.


McDonald believes the council should vote in open session on tentative contracts.


Steeber said elected officials sometimes are put on the spot, and the anonymity of the current system frees council members to vote without public pressure from unions.


"I think sometimes, by allowing the city manager to take and negotiate the contracts, it takes some of the politics out of the negotiations because you are negotiating through the city manager, not directly with the city council," he said.


Elected officials sometimes are conscious of union support at election time, he said.


"Outside groups, such as unions, can put a lot of pressure on individuals that isn't necessarily warranted or welcome," he said.


Members might feel more comfortable setting contract parameters in private without the outside pressure.


"Some council members are timid when they are up there (on the council dais)," he said. "They have that tendency to hold back ... In closed session, (he or she is a) totally different person."


He acknowledged the closed sessions allow council members to dodge public accountability.


"It's a good discussion point," Steeber said.


Councilman Yuri Rashkin said any process can be improved, but this one appears to work well. It's a "point of pride" that the city has such good relations and negotiates so well with unions, Rashkin said.


"But I trust (City Manager) Eric (Levitt) to bring up something for discussion," Rashkin said. "If he feels something can make things better, I'll take a look at it."


Rashkin said he gets calls from union representatives when council members discuss the budget, and closed sessions keep political influence from contract discussions.


"Not all negotiations are improved by having the details aired on the front page of The Janesville Gazette," he said.


Still, "I love transparency," Rashkin said.


Sam Liebert, Kathy Voskuil and Deb Dongarra-Adams agreed changes could make the process more transparent.


Liebert noted the potential of political backfire against individual council members, but he said that shouldn't be directed at the city manager.


"The council should be held accountable on what they decide," Liebert said.


"I'm all about transparency. I think the people deserve to see how their council members vote on important issues."


Voskuil said change would reinforce transparency in government.


Personnel costs are significant, and the public should be privy to the discussions, she said.


Voskuil agreed that some council members should be representatives on the negotiating teams.


Dongarra-Adams said contract negotiations affect how a city is run.


"We make lots of other decisions," she said. "We might as well make that one, too."



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