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Spokane voters made all city union negotiations open to the public. Why not the police guild?

Proposition 1 passed overwhelmingly last year, but the city argues it doesn't apply to this round of discussions.

SPOKANE, Wash — In 2019, nearly 77 percent of Spokane city voters passed Proposition 1.

The measure amended the city’s charter to declare all negotiations between the city and the various unions for its employees must be open to the public.

The foremost promoter of the measure, Michael Cathcart, was elected to city council in the same election. He says his expectation was that the proposition would apply to the police guild.

“In fact that was part of the messaging that was used to promote the measure," he said. "I think that the public, frankly, is starved for transparency.”

But the city administration had a different interpretation.

“This has been an ongoing negotiation for three plus years now, and the terms for negotiation are set at the outset of negotiations," said administration spokesman Brian Coddington. "And so to come back in the middle of the process is something that both sides would have to agree to do, and it wasn’t something that was possible in this case.”

“I reject that argument completely," said Cathcart of the administration's argument. "The charter... amendment specifically did not delineate between ongoing negotiations, or new negotiations. There was no reference to that at all.”

Cathcart says he can accept some grey area in another argument, that the actual negotiation phase was already over and technically the contract was in the mediation phase.

But as it stands, the contract is near finalized, and will be voted on by the city council on Monday.

It’s become a flashpoint for a broader debate about police violence, with many local protesters honing in on the contract as a symbol of insufficient accountability.

“Had these negotiations been public, I really think that there would be less concern over this contract at this point in time," said Cathcart. “I really honestly believe that the negotiations would not have taken three and a half years. I think had they been public from day one, I think the community support for the independent oversight would have been strong enough that I think these negotiations would have wrapped up sooner. I think the guild would’ve had an opportunity to hear more directly from folks in the community, because they were able to observe those negotiations.”

Pressure has mounted from protesters and organizations like the Spokane NAACP for the council to reject the contract. But if that happens, there’s a concern it the contract would go to third-party arbitration rather send negotiators back to the table.

Although the contested part of the agreement is its accountability frameworks, the bulk of it is dedicated to compensation. Since the contract was supposed to cover the years 2017-2020, officers will be owed years of backpay. 

Given that the contract will expire at the end of this year, another round of negotiations will start almost immediately for a new contract. Both the administration and the council expect those discussions would be public.

“I believe there is a lot of support in this community to ensure that the next round of negotiations, regardless of this contract, are fully transparent to the public, and that everybody gets to know what is being discussed and how it’s being discussed," said Cathcart.

The police guild did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

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