February: Work rules can’t be hashed out in secret

2012 Columns

Dee J. Hall

When members of the Columbia County Board committee that handles employment issues voted to go into closed session on Jan. 4, a reporter from the Daily Register newspaper in Portage and a local representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) objected.

The two critics pointed out that under the controversial state law passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker, the issues they sought to discuss were no longer part of the collective bargaining process and therefore not exempt from the state’s open meetings law.

The committee met in secret anyway, later releasing a series of proposed changes in a new employment manual affecting about 400 Columbia County employees, whose union contracts expired at the end of 2011.

On Jan. 18, the full Columbia County Board voted 24-4 to adopt the the changes. But several supervisors, including some who voted for the new provisions, raised questions about the openness of the process.

Among the new work rules were:

  • Eliminating longevity pay, which had been $20 for each year of county employment, up to a maximum of $700;
  • Limiting compensatory time to 40 hours a year, down from 80 hours per year, and not allowing accumulations year to year;
  • Adding up to 40 hours per year of unpaid personal time per employee;
  • Requiring that highway workers who lose their commercial driver’s licenses be terminated, rather than be reassigned pending reinstatement of their licenses.

Those are exactly the types of issues that are no longer part of collective bargaining, and hence no longer subject to the exclusion in the open meetings law, said Madison attorney Bob Dreps, an expert on the state’s open meetings law.

“Before Act 10, municipalities did not have to provide notice or comply with the open meetings law when discussing this subject because it was part of collective bargaining, which has never been subject to the open meetings law,” Dreps said. “Now, the same issues must be discussed in open session.”

Some governments have cited an exemption in the state law that allows a governmental body to meet in closed session to consider “employment, promotion, compensation or performance evaluation data of any public employee.”

But the state Attorney General’s Open Meetings Compliance Guide makes it clear that exemption is meant to protect individual employees, not “to protect a government body when it discusses general policies that do not involve identifying individual employees.”

The only exception that remains is for public safety employees, who were not affected by the sweeping changes in Act 10 and retain full collective bargaining rights.

“What rules should be adopted in the workplace is a subject that affects public employees, to be sure,” Dreps said, “but it is now a policy issue required to be discussed in public rather than as part of collective bargaining.”

Dreps said some members of the media have persuaded governmental bodies to hold open rather than closed meetings to discuss conditions of employment for public workers.

His advice: When in doubt, always err on the side of openness.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a media group devoted to protecting public access to meetings and records. Hall is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison and secretary of the Council.