Last month, when Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Herb Wesson announced a tentative contract with unions representing more than half of the city’s civilian workforce, budget watchdogs clamored for details so they could analyze the potential financial impact. They’re still waiting, and they’re getting increasingly impatient. Why? Because Los Angeles leaders have a history of rushed votes, insufficient analysis and little debate over labor contracts that can have major impacts on the city’s budget and services.
The most glaring example was the last contract with the Coalition of L.A. City Unions in 2007, when city leaders agreed to raises totaling nearly 25% even as then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was demanding across-the-board budget cuts. The deal ended up costing far more than officials had publicly estimated, and the city was forced to slash staff and services to cover the promised raises and higher pension obligations once the recession hit.
Despite that painful lesson, the City Council and Garcetti have over the last year signed off on new pay raises and increases in healthcare subsidies for firefighters and police officers with little public vetting of the contracts or debate over the costs and long-term budget impact. Now, groups such as the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates and others worry that the new contract with the Coalition of L.A. City Unions will be similarly fast-tracked and underanalyzed.
Los Angeles should develop its own version of the Civic Openness in Negotiations ordinances that have been adopted in other California cities and counties, including Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Beverly Hills and Orange County. These laws vary. Some, for example, require disclosure of every offer and counteroffer made during labor negotiations; that seems to go a little too far. Others require only an independent analysis of the tentative agreement. The premise is that the public deserves a transparent accounting and discussion of labor deals. Too often, contracts are negotiated in secret, ratified by union members and quickly rubber-stamped by elected officials, many of whom rely on labor unions for campaign contributions.
In developing a COIN ordinance, L.A.'s goal should be public hearings at the beginning of negotiations to lay out the city’s expectations and at the end to explain the tentative deal. The city should commission an independent analysis of the short- and long-term impacts. (Currently, the city’s chief labor negotiator, the city administrative officer, also prepares the financial analysis of the contract.) Lastly, the city should allow plenty of time for the public to ask questions and raise concerns before the City Council and mayor vote on final contracts.