N.H. bill looks to make public-sector union talks public record

  • New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu walks through a group of SEA/SEIU labor union representing public-and-private-sector workers across New Hampshire on his way to his first State of State address at the State House on Thursday, February 15, 2018. The two governor portraits above Sununu are Governors Albert G. Brown and John H. Barltlett. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 2/20/2018 9:23:19 PM

The battle has been waged in the public sphere for months. A contract dispute between state workers and the governor has prompted the union to host rallies and brandish road signs calling on Gov. Chris Sununu to agree to a salary raise.

But the contract negotiations themselves – held last spring before both sides declared an impasse – took place behind closed doors. Exactly what was said before to the breakdown may never be made public.

A new bill would change that, mandating that collective bargaining negotiations with state employee unions be conducted at public meetings, under the New Hampshire’s right-to-know law. Now, unions – including the state workers, municipalities and police unions – are joining to oppose the idea, calling it detrimental to effective negotiations.

Senate Bill 420 would remove a provision in state law that exempts collective bargaining negotiations from the state’s open meetings law. Under the new bill, any two-party negotiation with public sector unions must be signposted in advance, include minutes, and be open to an audience.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Gary Daniels, R-Milford, extends beyond biennial negotiations between state workers and the governor. Local collective bargaining efforts, such as those between school districts and teachers’ unions, would also fall under the requirement.

The requirement would exempt “strategy” sessions held by any of the parties on their own, allowing members of one side of a given negotiation to withdraw in private and “caucus” on their position.

At a hearing Tuesday, Daniels presented the plan as a needed step toward transparency.

To start, the effort would allow for a public spotlight on the bargaining process, forcing each side to work together and ultimately shortening negotiations, Daniels argued. And it would allow better oversight into the figures and arguments used to justify certain salary increases, which in local negotiations can sometimes appear without detailed context.

“We ask taxpayers to fund government resources and activities, and the manner by which you determine those things should be transparent to the public,” he said.

Donna Green of Sandown agreed. A representative of the School District Governance Association, Green has been an active member of her town’s school district salary negotiations. But as a member of the budget committee, Green found herself taken by surprise by a contract negotiation process that kept the committee in the dark until the last minute, she testified Tuesday.

“What we have now is not working for the people,” she said. “We have salaries and benefits that are outstripping those of the taxpayers and with no transparency in how they’ve been arrived at.”

But the unions themselves are resistant. Opening the negotiations up to the public sounds like a good idea, said Cordell Johnston of the New Hampshire Municipal Association. But it would inhibit the ability of the parties to be candid with each other; each side would merely play to their respective audiences, Johnston claimed.

Without that kind of candor, negotiations could be harder in the end, Johnston said.

Patrick Cheetham, president of the New Hampshire Police Association, agreed, saying that opening every last meeting to the public could create an echo chamber of bickering.

“You can’t argue balls and strikes,” Cheetham said of the negotiation process.

And Brian Hawkins, government relations coordinator at the State Employees’ Association, brought up an additional concern: Parties would not be able to speak freely about specific personnel issues in public, often used to illustrate their arguments.

The present system affords an ebb and flow that could vanish if done in the open, he said.

“It’s the old mantra: If it ain’t broke, why try and fix it?” he said.

Still, some members of the Senate Commerce Committee seemed receptive. Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, commended the bill for allowing some oversight into the state workers’ contract, whose outcome, he added, affects the state’s budget. And in a question to Daniels, he suggested taking the effort a step further in a future bill: mandatory legislative approval of the state worker’s contract.

“I would not be averse,” Daniels said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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