Oregon Supreme Court hears TriMet case

CAN PUBLIC EMPLOYEE UNIONS LET THE PUBLIC OBSERVE BARGAINING? Absolutely, Aruna Masih, attorney for ATU Local 757, told the court.

Attorneys for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 and TriMet faced off in front of the Oregon Supreme Court June 14 in a legal dispute over whether the public has the right to observe public-sector labor negotiations. Oregon law seems pretty clear about it: “Labor negotiations shall be conducted in open meetings unless negotiators for both sides request that negotiations be conducted in executive session,” says ORS 192.660 (3).

Normally, that’s moot because both sides prefer to bargain in private, seeing that as more likely to result in agreement. But in 2012, Local 757 decided to let the public in.

TriMet sued and asked the court to agree that its bargaining sessions aren’t subject to Oregon’s Public Meetings Law — because the law defines “meeting” as “the convening of a governing body for which a quorum is required in order to make a decision or deliberate toward a decision,” — and TriMet never set a quorum requirement for its eight-member bargaining team.

When TriMet attorney Keith Garza restated that argument June 14, Oregon Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical.

“Essentially that interpretation creates a situation where the public body can completely control whether or not the negotiations are open depending on who they have doing the negotiating,” said Justice Meagan Flynn.

“I have to confess: I don’t follow your argument,” Justice Jack Landau told Garza. “Sub-section 3 says labor negotiations shall be conducted in open meetings … What the bargaining team is doing, is it labor negotiations?”

“Yes,” Garza replied.

“Okay, so whatever the team is doing, it has to be accomplished in an open meeting … What am I missing?”

Local 757’s attorney, Aruna Masih of the Bennett Hartman firm, argued that text, context, and legislative history all support ATU’s interpretation of the statute.

“We believe based on the context that the Legislature made clear there were very special rules they intended to apply to labor negotiations in general,” Masih told the court.

Masih says it’s impossible to know how a court will rule. The court is expected to issue a decision later this year. —DM

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