Employee partnerships order still on the books

The Colorado Statesman

The second attempt by Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, to kill a 2007 executive order on employee partnerships fell by the wayside Monday. The Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee killed his Senate Bill 11-038 on a 3-2 party-line vote. However, Mitchell got a bit of encouragement for one facet of his concerns over the largest state employee union, Colorado WINS, from the Senate President Pro Tem.

RELATED STORY: EMPLOYEE PARTNERSHIPS: WHAT THEY DO, WHAT THEY DON’T DO

SB 38 would have allowed classified state employees who choose to do so to remain members of employee organizations, but it would have terminated the existing partnership agreement formed as a result of Executive Order D 028 07 signed by former Gov. Bill Ritter.

During Monday’s hearing, Mitchell pointed out that repealing the executive order, and the employee partnerships, would not affect the cooperation between state employees and their supervisors. Mitchell said as a 20-year resident of Colorado, he appreciated the good work of state employees. “This bill is not about the worth of state employees; it’s about the relationship they should have with their state employer,” he said.

The executive order “didn’t solve any existing problem, it didn’t improve anything that needed improving,” but it threatens to create a number of problems, Mitchell told the committee. Given the state’s current fiscal woes, he explained, there isn’t much of a fight over state employee salaries or benefits, but that fight will resume once the state’s economic picture improves.

The agreement that formed Colorado WINS seems to bear that out, as does its recruiting materials. Nowhere in the Ritter executive order does it mention collective bargaining, but that appears to be one of the main goals of the Colorado WINS agreement (see sidebar).

Mitchell told the committee that Gov. John Hickenlooper views the executive order as largely symbolic. “If that’s true,” he said, it presents a conundrum: the order is “either ineffectual or it’s unaffordable. When there’s money, and an expanding pie to fight over, the executive order will be unaffordable.”

Two state employees testified in SB 38; one in favor of it, and one against.

Testifying against SB 38: Diane Kruse, a 20-year employee, social work manager at Fort Logan Mental Health Institute and a WINS member. Kruse talked about the impact the employee partnerships have had at her agency. She said she joined the union in 2010, believing it would provide a way for state employees to have a constructive voice in the day-to-day operations of the workplace.

The partnerships have worked to make services safer, more effective and more efficient, both at Fort Logan and across the state, Kruse told the committee. She also said the partnerships have helped retain quality staff in the face of layoffs and transfers when units at Fort Logan were closed, and that has saved the state money on recruitment and training.

The secrecy behind the operations of Colorado WINS was raised by David Ohlmart, an employee of the Department of Labor and Employment. Ohlmart runs an alternative organization, Colorado LOSES, which has tracked the goings-on of Colorado WINS from its beginnings. Ohlmart told the committee he has asked for information about its funding and non-state employee staff, and claimed the union’s membership has dropped from a high of 3,500 to about 1,000 today. However, Scott Wasserman, political director for Colorado WINS, said the membership is around 3,000, not the lesser figure of 1,000 claimed by Ohlmart. Wasserman also defended the right of the union to keep information private, pointing out that the union discloses everything it is required to disclose under state and federal law.

Ohlmart pointed out that the executive order allowed for another vote in Colorado WINS, one that could de-certify the union. That could have taken place last August, Ohlmart said, and he sought to organize a petition drive to do just that. But Ohlmart said that effort was stopped by Marty Flahive, the governor’s representative for employee partnerships, and by Ohlmart’s own agency, which is responsible for certifying the union through elections.

Ohlmart agreed with Mitchell that eliminating the employee partnerships would not affect internal agency cooperation. He said that in his agency, employees, through an employee council, meet with the agency’s executive director on a regular basis and has communicated well with its director, a system he hopes will continue under the agency’s new executive director.

If the committee doesn’t pass SB 38, Ohlmart said, “at least force WINS and other similar groups to be open to scrutiny by the public and the people they represent, which is me.”

While the bill failed to gain support from the committee’s Democrats, the union’s lack of transparency got the attention of Sen. President Pro Tem Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood.

Boyd said she appreciated Ohlmart’s concerns about openness and transparency. “Perhaps that’s something to be looked at,” she said, but she added that she was not comfortable “tying the hands of the governor.” Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, pointed out that the governor could weigh in on the executive order at any time. “It’s in the governor’s court regardless of what we do here,” he said. But Mitchell replied that it would be “an abdication by the General Assembly if we leave it in the hands of the governor without our input.”

Ohlmart isn’t the only person seeking to open the union’s records. Stephanie Cegielski, executive director of the Colorado Government Accountability Project, filed an open records request last month, seeking information on the union’s budget, membership numbers and names of non-state employees and their compensation and benefits. In the request, Cegielski pointed out that Pinnacol Assurance was recently ordered to comply with CORA requests because it owed “its existence to state statute, even though its asset base is not the property of the state.” Cegielski said she believed the Pinnacol ruling would apply since WINS represents state employees as a result of the executive order.

In its Jan. 21 response, WINS General Counsel Mark Schwane said the union is a private entity and not subject to CORA, and was not in possession of any documents that could be considered public.

Cegielski fired back on Jan. 31, telling WINS that it is a “functioning entity representing employees of the State of Colorado” as a result of the executive order, which “lends itself the same authority as a statute.” And a review of the WINS website, Cegielski said, reveals its role as a quasi-governmental agency that not only claims to benefit 31,000 state employees but “also those who are served by those employees.”

Cegielski told The Colorado Statesman this week she has not gotten a response from WINS to her latest letter, and is considering legal action.

Ohlmart told The Statesman after the hearing that the next big issue for Colorado WINS is getting the state to agree to agency fees. Those fees are charged to non-union state employees to cover the union’s costs for collective bargaining (see sidebar).

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com