PHOENIX - A House panel voted Tuesday to force cities and counties to negotiate with public employee unions in the open.

The proposal, HB 2330, would expand Arizona's open-meetings law to require that any discussion of salaries and fringe benefits between a representative of a public body and any agent or officers of an employee organization be conducted in the open. It would not matter whether there was a quorum of an elected council present, or even if a council member was there at all.

The vote came even though two of the Republicans on the nine-member Government Committee objected to the provisions. Both Reps. Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City and Doug Coleman of Apache Junction said their own experience as city council members convinced them the legislation is a bad idea.

That was enough to send the measure down to defeat in a preliminary vote.

But a procedural motion by Rep. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, forced the two to go along with their GOP colleagues to allow the legislation to move next to the House floor. Both lawmakers indicated that they will oppose the bill there.

Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, who sponsored HB 2330, called the issue a simple matter of transparency.

"There's no reason why taxpayers should be kept in the dark," he said, particularly since closed-door talks eventually lead to how public dollars are spent.

"We are asking that the taxpayers be given a seat at the table," he said. "If you're big enough to spend the taxpayers' dollars, you're big enough to be transparent and accountable."

Coleman, however, said taxpayers are at the table through their elected council members. He noted that the final vote on any deal - along with the terms - has to be done in public.

Montenegro responded that the council gets only an up or down vote on the final pact and cannot reject specific provisions. But Borrelli pointed out that if council members are unhappy with terms, they can reject the deal and send negotiators back to the bargaining table, behind closed doors.

Taylor Earl, an attorney with the Goldwater Institute, countered that it is important for the public and council members to know what happened up until that point so they can see what was offered and what was bargained away.

The Goldwater Institute, which has repeatedly taken on public unions, supported the bill; so did the Arizona Newspapers Association, in the interest of expanding the open-meetings law.

Quezada said Republican lawmakers are not being consistent. He pointed out that the negotiations between legislative leaders and the Governor's Office over the state's $9 billion budget occur behind closed doors. It is only when there is a final package that there is a public vote on the deal and the details are revealed.

Quezada chided Montenegro for not proposing to require that these talks be done in public, as well.

But Coleman said the proposal, if carried to extremes, would require lawmakers themselves to meet only in public with lobbyists and others ahead of any votes. Montenegro sidestepped the question of how he feels about such transparency, responding instead that anyone interested in that issue is free to introduce such a proposal.

A.J. LaFaro, new chairman of the Maricopa County Republican Committee, told lawmakers that union contracts are "a license to steal from the citizens of Arizona." He said the average salary of police officers in Tempe, where he lives, is $103,000, with firefighters earning an average of $109,000; by contrast he said the average Tempe resident earns less than $50,000.

Borrelli responded by asking LaFaro what a firefighter's life is worth. LaFaro answered that that was not relevant to the topic at hand.

Union dues

In separate action, the committee voted to require all cities and counties to take a public vote before the end of the year on whether to permit payroll deduction of union dues.

Michelle Ugenti, the sponsor of HB 2026, said she is not precluding such deductions. But she said if local officials want to offer that benefit to employees they should take an affirmative public vote.

Borrelli called it an unnecessary intrusion into local government but, as with the open negotiations measure, he and Coleman agreed to support it to get the bill to the full House.

A third bill to prohibit union members from doing union work while on public time, HB 2343, was tabled amid committee questions.