Public Watchdog.org

One Bite At A Time

05.23.11

There’s a saying that goes: “The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”

That’s an apt metaphor for how PublicWatchdog often focuses on the “small things” like City funding of community groups, or whether Park Ridge Senior Services, Inc. deserves a contract with the Park District, or how District 64 can’t run a lunchtime supervision program.  Because if government truly is broken, as so many people think, it got that way incrementally (i.e., one bite at a time); and, therefore, that seems to be the only way it is going to be fixed.

Last week we addressed what some might regard as significant misconduct by three of the top City employees – Fire Chief Mike Zywanski, City Mgr. Jim Hock, and Deputy City Mgr. Julianna Maller – who sat silently during the City Council meeting on May 2 in response to Mayor Dave Schmidt’s simple, straightforward question:  How were the “Ground Rules,” that require the City to keep the details of its negotiations with the firefighters union secret, agreed to?  Implicit in that question is who agreed to those Ground Rules, and the mayor subsequently asked expressly by what authority any City staffer could agree to them.

This apparently was done back in January, without prior mayoral or Council approval and without even letting the mayor or the Council know about it until a few weeks ago.  Despite Chief Z, Hock and Maller all being members of the City’s negotiating team and, presumably, having been present when those Ground Rules were agreed to, not one of them owned up to proposing or agreeing to those Ground Rules.  Instead, Hock claimed that’s the way negotiations were done, and he asked for time to investigate.

But only two weeks later at the May 16 Council meeting, perhaps after those three had some time to figure out their best CYA story, Chief Z obtusely explained how he was the one who proposed and agreed to the Ground Rules.  We’re guessing that Hock and Maller, most likely after consulting with City Attorney Everette “Buzz” Hill, figured that Chief Z, as the “new guy” and carrying the goodwill all firefighters seem to have acquired since 9/11, would catch less flak for this screw-up than they would.

So Chief Z wore the jacket this time, not that there’s much consequence to it.

It’s troubling enough that at a time when “transparency” and “accountability” are being stressed as key factors in how government should be run, three of our top (and most highly-paid) public officials would propose and agree to keeping these labor negotiations secret until a deal, or impasse, had been reached.  It’s even more troubling when public officials seem to believe they can do what they want and then conceal it from our elected representatives with impunity, as Chief Z, Hock and Maller did starting back in January and continuing all the way to May 16th.

Given that the wages and benefits paid our public employees, including our unionized ones, involve the public purse about which there should be no secrets, however, there’s no good reason why such collective bargaining shouldn’t be held in meetings open to the press and the public. 

Let the City decide, as part of its very public budget process, what wage and benefit terms are affordable and in the best interest of the taxpayers for the coming year, and only for the coming year.  The City should then publicly offer those exact terms to the union representing the particular bargaining unit; and then let that union make its case, equally publicly, to those same taxpayers if it thinks its members deserve more than what the City offered.  Maybe all this could be done as part of the budget process.

That way, everything is face-up on the table and visible to the people who are paying the bill. 

And by doing this every year for that coming year rather than for 2-3 years at a time, both the City and the unions know what the City’s financial condition is like on a real-time basis – so the City doesn’t lock itself into a multi-year contract that it may find itself incapable of performing due to the demands of unexpected future occurrences and expenses.

Simple and neat.  No secrecy, no misdirection, no game-playing.

And one less opportunity for Chief Z, Hock and Maller to lie to the Mayor, the Council, and the taxpayers about who did what.

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2 comments so far

What you are proposing is not really “bargaining” is it? Would that be an unfair labor practice to just say “here’s what we’re willing to pay”? BUt it sounds great if it could work.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As we understand it, what the City (or the School District, or the Park District) is willing to pay is always the bottom line. If the raises and benefits get too expensive but the public body remains obligated for them, the public body can cut employees until it gets down to its budgeted cost levels, as occurred with School District 207 a year or two ago when it cut teachers because the union would not make wage concessions.

It’s appalling that our well-compensated managers didn’t own up to who made the decision. What are they, naughty kids? But it’s naiive to say that it would serve the public to have the whole contract negotiation in full view. If the union or the real estate seller, or whomever, knew our bottom-line, drop-dead price in advance, how could we ever hope to get a better price for the long-suffering public? It seems odd that the managers wouldn’t raise this very reasonable justification and instead fell back on a) hiding out and when that no longer worked, b) saying it’s how we’ve always done it. Makes you wonder what else they’re not saying….

EDITOR’S NOTE: You’re assuming that the City and/or its negotiators EVER get us long-suffering taxpayers a “better price” for anything – a “fact” nowhere near to being in evidence in connection with labor negotiations. Ask yourself this question: if YOU needed to negotiate something, would you send Hock, Maller and/or Chief Z to do it for you?

As we see it, the taxpayers are best served by their elected officials passing a budget that properly allocates for what they believe to be fair employee wages and benefits for that year; and then letting the unions make their arguments for more or different ones IN PUBLIC – so the taxpayers can judge for themselves, in real time and before any backroom “deal” is cut – who is being reasonable and who is not.

Which is why we believe the unions and their members want nothing to do with such an arrangement.



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