Unions Foiled in Plot to Evade Open Government Law

It’s rare to see a California local government rescind a vote. But on October 4, 2016, the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to rescind a controversial and probably illegal vote taken three weeks earlier to satisfy the political demands of construction unions.

Rescind Project Labor Agreement Vote - San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors - October 4, 2016

Rescind Project Labor Agreement Vote – San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors – October 4, 2016

On September 13, the board had voted 3-2 to direct staff to negotiate a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with construction trade unions for a $41 million county hospital expansion. Organizations that defend fair and open bid competition for public contracts were caught by surprise. There was nothing on the September 13, 2016 meeting agenda to indicate board discussion – let alone action – concerning a government-mandated Project Labor Agreement.

But some people seemed to know a vote would happen. Union officials and activists attended the September 13 meeting and called on the Board of Supervisors to negotiate a Project Labor Agreement. At least one Supervisor was ready to make a motion for it even though the proposal was introduced to the board via public comment.

In addition to undermining the public interest, the vote appeared to be illegal. Under the California Ralph M. Brown Act, an elected governing board cannot vote on items without notifying the public in advance that such items will be considered for action. This is a basic principle of open and transparent government.

But having a law and actually enforcing it are sometimes two different things. Frequently the public encounters insurmountable challenges in making California local governments accountable for violating what’s commonly called “the Brown Act.” In this case, opponents of government-mandated Project Labor Agreements needed persistence and determination to confirm the illegal action and get it rectified.

A video record of the meeting posted on the county website after the meeting strangely cut off before the vote, thereby depriving the public of a source to prove what had happened. A reporter who covered the September 13 Board of Supervisors meeting for the local newspaper insisted that the board had not taken a vote to negotiate a Project Labor Agreement. Members of the public trying to obtain draft meeting minutes were frustrated by what seemed to be bureaucratic delays.

Yet there was one reliable witness at the meeting who was paying close attention to the proceedings. This witness was sure that a 3-2 vote had been taken specifically to authorize staff to negotiate a union Project Labor Agreement to include as a bid specification for the San Joaquin General Hospital Phase 2 Acute Care Patient Wing Expansion Project.

Eventually, the county was able to restore the video to completeness and provide the order of the board. It was indeed a vote directing staff to negotiate a Project Labor Agreement with unions, with the agreement to come back for ratification at the September 27 board meeting. (Allowing only two weeks for “negotiations” of a major labor relations contract suggests that union officials and some county supervisors were going to pressure staff to hastily sign off on a standard boilerplate agreement that unions typically introduce at the start of negotiations.)

The plot was now proven. A coalition of organizations banded together and hired a law firm to send a letter to the Board of Supervisors demanding that the vote be nullified. Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors cancelled its September 27 meeting for unknown reasons. Then the Board of Supervisors scheduled an agenda item at the October 4 meeting to rescind the original September 13 vote.

San Joaquin County Administration Building Evacuation - October 4, 2016

Evacuating the San Joaquin County Administration Building on a beautiful fall day.

But supporters of fair and open bid competition on taxpayer-funded contracts even struggled at the October 4 board meeting to get that 5-0 vote to correct the apparently illegal action. Hundreds of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) activists repeatedly disrupted and delayed the meeting to express displeasure with their own contract negotiations. When a representative of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction was speaking during public comment to urge the board to rescind their Project Labor Agreement vote, someone set off the fire alarm, resulting in the evacuation of the building.

In the past 20 years, the militant union activism and underhanded political tricks formerly concentrated in a few urban centers of California have rippled out 75 miles to places such as San Joaquin County. While many fiscal conservatives are fleeing the state or dying, those who choose to remain in California must monitor their local government agendas and make elected officials accountable when they violate the law for a special interest group.

Sources

September 26, 2016 Letter to San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors – Brown Act Violation – Project Labor Agreement Vote

October 4, 2016 San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors Meeting Agenda Item – Rescind Vote to Negotiate Project Labor Agreement

Union Creates Bedlam at San Joaquin Supervisors Meeting – Stockton Record – October 4, 2016


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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