Monday, January 24, 2011
APS Backs Bill for Closed Negotiations
By Hailey Heinz
Journal Staff Writer
A bill being pushed by Albuquerque Public Schools would expand an exemption in the Open Meetings Act, allowing public boards and commissions to discuss ongoing contract negotiations in closed session.
Proponents say the exemption would give boards meaningful input in negotiations, instead of just offering initial guidance and approving contracts at the end.
"The process itself is a little odd, when you consider that the collective bargaining agreement is between the union and the board. It's not between the union and the administration," said APS board president Martin Esquivel.
"So basically the way it's worked in the past is the administration negotiates it, and the board that really enters into the agreement has no other choice but to accept what's been negotiated. So we're basically a rubber stamp in this process."
Critics say any move that gives officials more leeway to meet in private is a bad thing.
"I think it's a step in the wrong direction," said County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who advocates for open government.
"To a certain extent, I think it's not a bad idea to have some of those negotiations more public than private," Johnson said.
Esquivel said negotiations should be done in private because of the give-and-take nature of the process.
"If you're doing a real estate deal, you gather around and say, 'I think we can get this property for $10,000, let's go in and make an offer of $6,000, knowing we'll go up,' " Esquivel said. "The problem is if you make that entirely open, it makes it difficult to engage in collective bargaining."
As written, the law allows boards to privately discuss strategy before negotiations begin. Boards can also meet privately with the unions during negotiations, but APS's negotiations are done by administrators. The current law does not allow the board to receive closed-door updates from those administrators during the process.
The bill is set to be introduced by Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque. APS brought the concept to the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government for feedback before introducing it.
FOG Executive Director Sarah Welsh said the proposal seems to be in good faith, but that FOG is reluctant to support expanding any exemptions to the Open Meetings Act.
"We tried to kind of imagine worst-case scenarios of how would people try to stretch this," Welsh said. "In general we're kind of allergic to expanding exemptions."
Welsh said some boards have tried to stretch existing wording to include things like meeting privately with employees seeking to form a union, which is not allowed under the law.
Esquivel, who is also an attorney specializing in free speech issues, said the act would not inhibit the district's transparency, and that the benefits outweigh the costs.
"If the contract was with the administration, that would be one thing," Esquivel said. "But then for the board to sign off on it without any real involvement, that part of it doesn't make sense."