Sunshine Week: When it comes to cost of contracts, most N.H. cities support transparency

Monitor staff
Published: 3/15/2019 6:20:38 PM

It was the end of the Concord City Council’s monthly meeting in July, and councilors had cleared through all of the items on the agenda.

But the plan for the night wasn’t yet complete. Mayor Jim Bouley motioned to approve the cost items included in a collective bargaining agreement for the Concord Fire Officers Association. It quickly seconded and it passed unanimously with no discussion. Councilors immediately adjourned.

Negotiations between the fire officers and the City of Concord had been concluded for almost a month by the time the cost items were approved, according to a request from the Monitor. But the cost items of the contract weren’t made public until after the vote.

In Concord, the public has no notice of when the City Council will vote on a contract, has no opportunity to comment before a contract is passed, and only gets to know how much a contract will cost until after it’s a done deal.

Most New Hampshire municipalities handle the approval of public contracts differently.

The information usually is posted on the city’s legislative body’s agenda. Most cities allow for public comment on the resolution during a general public comment period during the meeting. Some hold full public hearings.

At least two other cities – Keene and Claremont – handle things similarly to Concord and provide no information about cost items prior to a council vote. In Berlin, the cost items associated with the contract are read into the record just before the council votes. Somersworth officials did not return requests for comment for this story.

Employee salaries and benefits are the biggest portion of a municipality’s budget, accounting for about 75 percent of all spending. Contracts are often pitched to residents as “fixed costs” by public officials. But residents in New Hampshire’s towns – who have more knowledge and say over employee salaries than city residents – know that’s not the case.

This past week, voters in dozens of towns heard the arguments for and against proposed labor contracts and associated costs and cast their votes.

State laws governing collective bargaining and public records protect contract negotiations as confidential. But the law doesn’t define “negotiations.”

Releasing information to the public before a vote can be handled differently even within the same zip code.

In September, the Concord School Board approved a teachers contract that would add an estimated $1.2 million in additional spending in the first year, $980,000 going toward salaries, $170,000 toward retirement contributions, and $75,000 in social security.

Those figures were made available to the public shortly after the district’s negotiations team reached an agreement with the union, days before the school board took their final vote.

‘More information available to public is a good thing’

For some cities, transparency around approving contracts is embedded in their legislative body rules.

Lebanon’s city charter stipulates three separate presentations and a public hearing must be held prior to adopting a new collective bargaining unit.

The public doesn’t always use its opportunity to weigh in, said Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland. In December, when the city’s four public contracts were up for renewal, there was little input from the public.

“We really don’t get much public input, which is unfortunate,” he said. “But it’s good to have the information out there. Having more information available to the public is a good thing.”

In Franklin and Rochester, adding cost items of a proposed contract to a council agenda before the meeting is how they do business.

“It’s just common practice,” said Rochester City Manager Blaine Cox. “Most communities do that and publish ahead of time what the council is going to take up.”

Cox pointed out municipalities aren’t required by law to publish agendas at all; they only have to notice a public meeting 24-hours in advance.

Putting more information out there is good for public sentiment, he said.

“We want to get not only the council’s support for CBA, but we want to get the community at large to support the contracts for our employees,” Cox said.

Concord views the situation differently.

The city’s solicitor, James Kennedy, said the city views negotiations as complete when the leaders of both bargaining parties – the union’s representative and the city manager – have signed and executed a contract.

And while he said it might be appropriate to put cost items on an agenda prior to the vote if time permits, that would only be okay if the city council didn’t receive any more information about the cost items prior to a vote.

“Where the statute doesn’t expressly provide for a public hearing, then the city council certainly doesn’t have to provide it,” he said.

Kennedy also said making cost items public prior to a council vote may violate good faith bargaining laws. He wouldn’t comment if other municipalities were violating those laws by informing the public.

In Concord, if the public doesn’t approve of a particular contract, they have the right to express that during the city’s budget proceedings, Kennedy said.

They can also “bring it up at the ballot box in November,” he said.

Key parts of the law

New Hampshire labor law (RSAs 273-A) says only cost items can be submitted to the legislative body and once that happens, a vote must be taken in 30 days.

If a municipal body rejects any part of the submitted items or wants to make changes, either party may reopen negotiations on all or part of the entire agreement.

The state’s right to know law (91-A:2) governs access to government records and meetings. It exempts certain things from public meetings, including “strategy or negotiations with respect to collective bargaining.”

Nowhere in either law does it state when cost items can be made public after negotiations conclude.

There’s nothing stopping towns and cities from releasing cost items information o nce negotiations are concluded, said Cordell Johnston, government affairs representative for the New Hampshire Municipal Association. There’s also nothing stopping them from withholding the information until after a vote, either.

However, “That seems to be the appropriate thing to do,” he said when asked about making cost items public. “It’s good for the public to know what the city  council is voting on.”

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