The Seattle Police Officers' Guild and the City of Seattle are right in the middle of contract negotiations. Ordinarily, those two groups are the only ones involved in the discussions. But last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) jumped in, suing the city for access to documents related to the negotiations.

Since the previous contract ran out at the end of 2002, guild and city officials have been meeting to hammer out a new agreement covering Seattle's 1,200 police officers. They could be discussing a number of issues. The city has hinted before that they'd like more citizen involvement in police disciplinary decisions, something that would require union agreement. Health insurance may be on the table: A previous contract granted officers full benefits, but other city workers recently had to start paying more for health care coverage. And it's the first contract negotiation since the police union took a no-confidence vote in Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske last spring, so it's possible guild officials are pushing for accountability measures of their own.

But those are just guesses. Since the discussions are labor negotiations, the city doesn't have to disclose what's going on. The public is informed of the end result of the talks, but isn't involved in the months-long process. Moreover, the public doesn't even know what issues are in the mix.

The ACLU of Washington is trying to change that. In April, the group filed a public records request with the city to see the initial lists of issues going into negotiations--documents the city and the guild exchanged last November. It would be a window into what's happening in negotiations. "We're not asking to see updated reports, or to be kept informed on the nuances of the labor negotiations," says the ACLU's Doug Honig. "We want to see what's on the table."

But the city, citing an exemption for deliberative process in the state's public disclosure law, denied the ACLU's request. "Release of these documents would inhibit the flow of the deliberative process," city labor negotiator Fred Treadwell wrote to the ACLU on April 16. The city also said giving the ACLU the documents could constitute an unfair labor practice, by bypassing the guild and taking the issues public.

On July 1--after appealing the city's decision to the mayor's legal advisor, Regina LaBelle, and getting a second rejection--the ACLU took the city to court. The case goes in front of a King County Superior Court judge on July 25. (The mayor's office declined to comment on a pending lawsuit; officials from the police officers' guild were unavailable.)

The ACLU's interest stems from previous contract negotiations, which were heavily focused on police accountability. The current police oversight agency--the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA)--was put in place by the city council, but had to be approved during negotiations for the last contract. More recently, implementing a citizens' review board of the OPA--a three-member supplementary panel--was held up by contract talks over who would be eligible for the positions.

This time around, the ACLU wants to know if more accountability measures are on the table. Seattle is in a budget crunch, and it's unclear if the city has much financial negotiating power to increase accountability measures. But if the city's going to bring it up, the ACLU wants the public to know. "Certainly, the ACLU supports the right of the police to have a union," Honig emphasizes. "But [these issues are] something the public should be aware of."