Caught and Exposed: Secret Union Dealings of a College District

The Rancho Santiago Community College District in Orange County (California) declared in a December 8, 2014 letter that it “unconditionally commits that it will cease, desist from, and not repeat the challenged past action…” That action involves secret dealings with unions.

A construction trade association was willing to threaten litigation to make this happen. And to emphasize its seriousness, the association also made an elected board member accountable to voters for his involvement in the secret dealings. That candidate ended up losing a key election for a California State Senate seat.

What was done wrong? While negotiating a Project Labor Agreement with construction trade unions for future construction contracts, the elected board of trustees for this community college district appeared to violate state law requiring government entities to give public access to its deliberations and actions. The board discussed the proposed content of the Project Labor Agreement in closed session meetings. The public could not know what was happening.

California construction trade unions seemed to be encouraging local governments to discuss embarrassing Project Labor Agreement controversies (such as trade jurisdictional disputes among unions) out of sight of the public. A month before the closed session board meetings at the Rancho Santiago Community College District, the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority had been caught also planning to discuss Project Labor Agreement terms and conditions in a closed session meeting.

If this practice continued, it would undermine the public’s ability to comment on Project Labor Agreements.

An attorney representing the Southern California Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) initiated correspondence with the Rancho Santiago Community College District objecting to the board’s closed session meetings. Objections were based on California Government Code Section 54960 (part of the Ralph M. Brown Act), which authorizes any interested person to seek judicial action to stop or prevent violations or threatened violations of state laws related to open and transparent government conduct.

In response, the president of the college board of trustees provided the following statement:

The Board of Trustees of the Rancho Santiago Community College District has received your cease and desist letter on behalf of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Southern California, Inc. dated October 10, 2014, and clarification letter on November 6, 2014, alleging that the following described past action of the legislative body violates the Ralph M. Brown Act:

• Holding closed session negotiation and discussions regarding the terms of project labor agreements, including the ”Community and Student Workforce Project Agreement.”

In order to avoid unnecessary litigation and without admitting any violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the Board of Trustees of the Rancho Santiago Community College District hereby unconditionally commits that it will cease, desist from, and not repeat the challenged past action as described above.

But it wasn’t enough just to get a letter from the college district. There needed to be true public accountability for the scheme.

As it pursued the violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the Southern California Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors began informing the public about the involvement of community college board member Jose Solorio in the Project Labor Agreement scheme. Solorio was in a highly competitive election for an open State Senate seat.

Here’s a mailer sent to voters in the district.

2014-11-04-Election-Mailer-Solorio-Failed-Santa-Ana-FINAL-Front

2014-11-04-Election-Mailer-Solorio-Failed-Santa-Ana-FINAL-Back

In the end, Solorio lost the election to Republican Janet Nguyen, allowing Republicans to gain a seat in the California State Senate and deprive Democrats of a supermajority. The college district agreed not to engage in closed session discussions about Project Labor Agreements. And a warning was sent to union officials and their political sycophants about doing their business in secret.

Sources

“cease, desist from, and not repeat” letter from President of Board of Trustees of Rancho Santiago Community College District – December 8, 2014

Hiding of Solorio Backed Union Deal Likely To End in Lawsuit – OC Political – November 1, 2014

Ralph M. Brown Act (California Government Code Section 54950-54963)

Will California Union Officials Get to Discuss Project Labor Agreements in Closed Session?www.UnionWatch.org – November 26, 2013


Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

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