Initiative petitions would have Sequim voters weigh in on city employee union bargaining
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Sequim City Clerk Karen Kuznek-Reese, right, stamps as received a pair of petitions aimed at reforming the way the city deals with employee unions brought in by Susan Shotthafer of Port Angeles on Monday. —Photo by Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

SEQUIM –– Calling for more accountability from both the city and the unions that represent 50 of its workers, and saying municipal employees should have the choice of joining a union, citizens’ advocates filed a pair of initiatives Monday they want to put before voters.

“Cities are going bankrupt, and the bulk of their costs are employment,” said Susan Shotthafer of Port Angeles, one of the drivers behind the initiative petitions.

“We want to make sure the taxpayers’ funds are better spent.”

Proposition 1 would make collective bargaining negotiations between the city and unions public, while Proposition 2 would give employees the choice as to whether they join those unions.

Shotthafer said public negotiations with the unions would give taxpayers an open chance to see what issues the two sides are negotiating.

The city currently employs 73 people, with 50 of them being members of one of three unions represented by the Teamsters Local 589: police sergeants, police patrol officers and non-uniformed employees.

The other 23 employees are not union, meaning they are either in management or confidential positions.

“One good way to get employment costs under control is to put these negotiations out in the open,” she said.

But city officials say those negotiations, now held behind closed doors under a state exemption from the Open Public Meetings Act, are often too volatile to do in the public eye.

“I would compare it to doing marriage counseling in public,” City Manager Steve Burkett said.

“I don’t think it’s in the interest of the taxpayers.”

City Attorney Craig Ritchie, who was on vacation Monday and had not read the petitions, said in an email he worried public negotiations might violate the city’s contracts with the unions and could lead to unfair labor practices suits against the city.

Representatives of the Port Angeles-based Teamsters Local 589 did not return calls about the initiatives as of press time.

Sequim is one of 57 of the state’s 281 cities that allows citizens initiatives.

Port Angeles is the only other community on the North Olympic Peninsula to do so as well.

Shotthafer handed City Clerk Karen Kuznek-Reese petitions she said were signed by “at least” 729 people Monday in the temporary city hall at 226 N. Sequim Ave.

Shotthafer wasn’t sure if any of those who signed the petitions were city employees.

“The union members should be behind these,” said co-organizer Jerry Sinn.

“They should want to have a choice whether or not they belong to a union. That’s a clear freedom of association concern.

“The union members should also want negotiations to be public so they could be in on those meetings where decisions are made that affect lots of people.”

Advocates of the measures gathered signatures primarily by going door-to-door throughout town, where they were met with a vast majority of approval, according to Sinn.

“I think the public reception to these was very high,” Sinn said.

Burkett, though, said not all employees who are in union positions are required to join.

“They’re not required to be in the union, they’re just required to pay union dues,” Burkett said.

According to the city’s contract with the three Teamsters units, employees whose religion forbids them from joining a union must instead donate what they would have paid in dues to charity.

The city now has until Thursday to submit the petitions to the Clallam County auditor’s office to verify the signatures on the petitions.

If the signatures are valid, the city council then has 20 days to decide whether they will approve the initiatives as ordinances and make them law; put them up for a vote; or determine the initiatives are invalid and reject them, Ritchie said.

That timeline also presents a problem in getting the measures on the ballot, as the auditor’s office must receive ballot resolutions before Tuesday, Aug. 5 to put them on the November general election ballot.

Shotthafer said she was not aware of the Aug. 5 ballot deadline and said she would be “surprised” if that prevented the initiatives from making this fall’s ballot.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 28. 2014 6:37PM
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