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Unions Will Control Mid-Sized Cities with California Voting Rights Act

Unions firmly control the political agenda in California’s largest cities, but civic leaders and citizens in some of the state’s smaller cities are still resisting the union political machine.

Some of these cities, with populations from 100,000 to 250,000, include Escondido, Oceanside, Murrieta, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Anaheim, Santa Clarita, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Clovis, Elk Grove, and Roseville. These are cities where a dominant faction of elected and appointed officials generally puts a priority on efficiently providing basic services at a reasonable cost to their citizens.

Not surprisingly, city councils in some of these cities have attempted to enact home-rule charters or have exercised rights under their home-rule charters to free themselves from costly state mandates. This greatly agitates unions, which have long worked to attain their unchecked control of the agenda at the capitol.

Union officials want California’s cities to submit fully to state laws regarding collective bargaining for public employees and government-mandated wage rates (“prevailing wages”) for construction contractors. As reported in www.UnionWatch.org throughout 2012, public employee unions and construction trade unions spent huge amounts of money to convince voters in some of these cities to reject proposed charters.

Obviously unions don’t want to spend $1 million in dozens of cities every two years to defeat proposed charters, as they did in Costa Mesa before the November 2012 election. And soon they won’t have to spend any more money.

Unions are now implementing a tactic to alter political control of these smaller cities. It is likely to succeed in turning almost every California city with a population of 100,000 or more from fiscal responsibility to “progressive” governance based on theories of social justice.

Unions and their attorneys are masters at exploiting the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to attain unrelated economic objectives that benefit unions. And now unions are using the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (Election Code Section 14025 et seq.) as a tool to ensure the adoption of union-backed public policies at local governments.

Governor Davis signed Senate Bill 976 into law in 2001 as a way to address what the bill’s author called “racial block voting.” The law tries to end situations in which a class of relatively prosperous white community leaders has complete or nearly complete political control of a local government, even though the local government also represents a substantial number of relatively poor residents who are historically victims of racial discrimination in education, employment, and health.

According to this law, such a circumstance results from “the dilutive effects of at-large elections” in which candidates run together in a pool and the candidates who get the most votes take office. To give “protected classes” a better chance to have their own community representatives on an elected board, the Voting Rights Act of 2001 allows the implementation of “appropriate remedies, including the imposition of district-based elections” that end democratic practices that “hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process.”

Californians have passionate views about the rationale for this law, the implications of enforcing this law, and the assumption that citizens vote and will vote based on appeals to class consciousness and race consciousness. But the completely party-line vote on Senate Bill 976 (all Democrats in support, all Republicans in opposition) showed that every state legislator recognized how political power at local governments would change.

What district-based elections mean in actual political practice is that union-backed candidates get a better chance of winning a majority or a substantial majority of a local government’s elected board. The elected board shifts politically to the Left.

Escondido City Hall

Escondido City Hall

The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California (a Sacramento-based umbrella group for construction unions) saw an opportunity to use this law to derail a plan that it opposed in the City of Escondido. It was among the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the City of Escondido in December 2011 alleging that the city violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 by not having city council districts designed to elect more Latinos to the city council. (Demetrio Gomez v. City of Escondido, Case #37-2011-00060480-CU-CR-NC).

An article published by www.CaliforniaWatch.org on March 9, 2012 (White-Dominated Boards Face Legal Threats Over Racial Makeup) was surprisingly blunt about the true motivation for the union involvement in the lawsuit:

But labor unions and other groups also could use the law as a weapon in disputes with cities and school boards.

The first such case came in December, when the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California sued the city of Escondido, in San Diego County, alleging that at-large elections leave Latinos without fair representation. The union targeted Escondido because officials there have been trying to lower wages on public construction projects.

At that time, the Escondido City Council was developing a proposed charter for its citizens to consider enacting in 2012. That charter would have allowed the city to establish its own policies concerning government-mandated construction wage rates on municipal projects and on private projects receiving municipal financial assistance. It also would have prevented the city from entering into contracts that required construction companies to sign Project Labor Agreements with unions as a condition of work.

The brief submitted by the State Building Trades can be found here. Of course, it says nothing about the underlying objective of the lawsuit: dissuading Escondido and other cities from adopting home-rule charters that could erode the union political agenda.

A more honest union perspective about the lawsuit is revealed in excerpts below from the State Building Trades web site:

Members of SBCTC Affiliates Demand Fair Elections by Bob Balgenorth, head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council – January 2012

It’s not surprising that a city council that treats its Latino citizens disdainfully also has plans to worsen the quality of life for all construction workers. As the San Diego Union-Tribune reported in its coverage of the lawsuit, the current council will try to convince voters to make Escondido a charter city, in hopes of lowering construction wages on public works projects – for all workers, Latino and non-Latino alike.

“They want to take away the prevailing wage,” Demetrio Gomez, the lead plaintiff, told the paper. “They want to take away the things that make the average worker’s life worthwhile. We believe that’s wrong. And we believe if we had the ability to elect Latinos we would have better representation.”

(Also, see Members of SBCTC Affiliates Demand Escondido Change to District-Based Elections on the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California web site.)

In response, the City of Escondido asked a San Diego County Superior Court judge to dismiss the State Building Trades as a plaintiff because it lacked standing to sue: see here. The judge ruled on March 16, 2012 (Superior Court Decision – Gomez v. City of Escondido) that the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California did NOT have standing to be a plaintiff in this lawsuit:

In addition, Plaintiff Council does not satisfy the requirements for associational standing because voting rights are not germane to its purpose. The purpose of the Council is to protect the members’ rights with relation to their work and trade in construction. Voting rights are separate and distinct. Registering members to vote and providing voter education does not make members’ voting rights germane to the Council’s purpose.

Nevertheless, the lawsuit continued with the remaining plaintiffs. On March 22, 2013, after spending about $200,000 in legal fees, the City of Escondido submitted a settlement agreement to San Diego County Superior Court.

As explained by the city, “Escondido will be divided into four districts with each district to be represented by a Council member living within that district. The Mayor will continue to represent the entire City.” District boundaries “will respect the geographic neighborhoods and communities of interest, including any racial, ethnic, or language minorities.”

Retired judges will select a seven-member commission to draw the district boundaries. Union officials and their allies in local groups such as the Escondido Democratic Club will surely apply for appointments.

As a topping, the city will reimburse the plaintiff for attorneys’ fees of $385,000. It would be reasonable to assume that construction unions paid some of those legal costs.

But this is not the only union victory. After all of this union-backed litigation provoked by the proposed charter, Escondido voters ended up rejecting it in the November 2012 election. They chose to let the state legislature supersede local control over municipal affairs.

The City’s explanation of the settlement agreement concludes with this sentence: “Getting this litigation out of the way will enable the City to continue focusing on economic development and job creation – the issues that matter to all Escondido residents.”

It’s more likely that the City of Escondido will soon be focusing on social justice programs, generous concessions in contract negotiations with public employees, and requirements for construction contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements with unions.

In the meantime, surely California unions will again manipulate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. At the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) in California “Day at the Capitol” program on April 18, 2012, I asked a bipartisan panel of three California elections experts if they thought unions and other special interest groups would routinely use the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 as a weapon to achieve their political objectives at local governments. The unequivocal answer was YES.

“Absolutely,” said Paul Mitchell, a political consultant with Redistricting Partners, a firm based in Sacramento. He agreed with me that “that’s exactly what happened” at the City of Escondido and noted that the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 is “a card able to be played.” He expressed surprise that police, firefighters, and other public employee unions in cities such as Stockton had not already used this powerful weapon to win concessions from governments during negotiations for collective bargaining agreements.

Can Escondido avoid the fate of Stockton and San Bernardino? Only if Republicans can convince Latino voters in Escondido that limited government and fiscal responsibility are better for their communities than higher taxes, bigger government, and more regulatory restrictions on commerce. These are two conflicting philosophical views about the role of government and the relationship between government and commerce. Right now the latter is ascendant in California.

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.

With Senate Bill 7, California Unions Advance Plot to Neuter City Charters

More than 30 California cities are likely to defy top union officials by asking their citizens in 2014 to vote on enacting a “home rule” charter for local control.

Cities want to free their purely municipal affairs from costly union-backed state mandates, for reasons revealed in these recent articles:

Unions Rise to Defense of “Prevailing Wage” Rates Jeopardizing Hotel Project in Redding – www.LaborIssuesSolutions.com – February 15, 2013 and Redding Needs a Charter to End Nonsense Definition of Private Hotel as a “Public Works” Project – www.LaborIssuesSolutions.com – January 31, 2013.

Stanford Professor Warns Costa Mesa about Pension DebtOrange County Register – February 27, 2013 and City’s Pension Outlook Called ‘Stark’ – Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot – February 27, 2013. (With the failure of the Measure V charter in November 2012, Costa Mesa is now in the union paradigm with a proposed solution to raise taxes.)

A Former Mayor of a Southern California City Provides an Intellectual Argument for City Charters and Local Government Authority – www.LaborIssuesSolutions.com – February 19, 2013 (a commentary on Reasons to Consider Becoming a Charter City – San Diego Union-Tribune – February 19, 2013).

For a powerful example of how charter cities are saving money and being more cost-effective in their city operations and services, see Are Charter Cities Taking Advantage of State-Mandated Construction Wage Rate (“Prevailing Wage”) Exemptions? Cities recognize that exercising the power of a charter can free their municipal affairs from the grip of the state legislature and the special interest groups entrenched at the capitol. A staff report about city charters to the Murrieta City Council for its October 2, 2012 meeting was blunt about the need for cities to enact charters:

…a knowledgeable, involved electorate should both propel and constrain the direction of its own city. Local control has always been a paramount matter of residents, businesses and the Murrieta City Council. Yet state legislators and previous gubernatorial administrations continue to impose far greater mandates, while at the same time hindering the ability of local governments to operate successfully. With little ability to protest, local governments have watched as the state government continues to balance its budget deficits on the backs of fiscally responsible local jurisdictions…The voice of cities in Sacramento has become mute due to a combination of special interest groups, influential political campaign contributions and tone-deaf lawmakers passing unfunded mandates. This process has left cities with little ability to petition the state government…

A city charter is a unique document that acts like a constitution for a city adopting it. Overall, this puts more control into the hands of the residents instead of state legislators and gives a community greater independence to determine its own destiny. Cities typically enter the process to become a charter city to become more autonomous. A charter city has more flexibility and has ultimate authority over municipal affairs. The charter city provision of the state Constitution, commonly referred to as the “home-rule” provision, is based on the principle that a city, rather than the state, is in the best position to know what it needs and how to satisfy those needs. The home-rule provision allows charter cities to conduct their own business and control their own affairs. Therefore, a charter maximizes local control. Such benefits of a charter city are greater flexibility on public works contracts and other changes in the procurement process, more control over economic development practices, and less reliance on the state.

Right now there are 121 charter cities in California, up from 107 in 2007. But there are aggressive opponents who regard cities’ exercise of their charter authority (as cited above from the Murrieta staff report) to be an attack on their hegemony. In 2011 and 2012, unions spent jaw-dropping amounts per voter on campaigns to convince voters to reject reasonable proposed charters.

Charters were defeated in Rancho Palos Verdes, Auburn, Costa Mesa, Escondido, and Grover Beach, to the dismay of civic leaders whose local grassroots efforts were rolled over by well-funded union-backed professional campaign operations. Unions are now ready to crush California’s federalist rebellion once and for all in 2013 and 2014.

As one strategy, they are infiltrating and trying to neutralize the League of California Cities as an organization that provides information to cities looking at charters. A union-affiliated group called www.SmartCitiesPrevail.org is trying to influence the League of California Cities through sponsorship, partnership, and participation in the League’s Transportation, Communication & Public Works Committee.

Unions are aggressively opposing charters when proposed on the local level and are trying to derail proposals through charter review commissions (a strategy that worked for unions in Elk Grove, Redding, and other cities). See the newspaper articles listed below for evidence.

Union lobbyists also have a bill now in the California State Legislature (Senate Bill 7) introduced by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and a Republican State Senator, Anthony Cannella. It will cut off state funding for cities that use their constitutional charter authority to establish their own policies concerning state-mandated construction wage rates. (See Bill Introduced in State Senate to Suppress Authority of California’s Charter Cities to Establish Their Own Policies on Government-Mandated Construction Wage Rates – www.LaborIssuesSolutions.com – February 20, 2013.)

This bill adopts the same concept of crushing charter city authority as did the union-backed Senate Bill 922 in 2011 and Senate Bill 829 in 2012 (two bills pushed by Senator Michael Rubio, who just resigned to take a lobbying position with Chevron). These two laws cut off state money to charter cities that adopt policies prohibiting those cities from requiring construction contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions as a condition of work.

Threatening to withhold money as a tactic to force a government to submit to centralized authority may remind you of warnings in the dissent in the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 2012 concerning the constitutionality of Obamacare:

Structural protections – notably, the restraints imposed by federalism and separation of powers – are less romantic and have less obvious a connection to personal freedom…The fragmentation of power produced by the structure of our Government is central to liberty, and when we destroy it, we place liberty at peril…[The] practice of attaching conditions to federal funds greatly increases federal power…This formidable power, if not checked in any way, would present a grave threat to the system of federalism created by our Constitution…Coercing States to accept conditions risks the destruction of the “unique role of the States in our system.”

While the same principles would seemingly apply to the relationship of state and local governments, forces at the state capitol seem to prefer an overbearing centralized government that can solve problems with broad strokes of alleged social justice.

With bills such as SB 922, SB 829, and SB 7 deemed as acceptable modes of governance by the legislative supermajority and the governor, I anticipate a union-backed effort in the future to repeal outright the section of the California Constitution (Article XI, Section 3) that allows cities to govern their own municipal affairs under a charter. It would be an effective way to eliminate another one of the diminishing number of checks and balances that interfere with utopian schemes planned under the benevolent and enlightened one-party state.

Then there is the strange case of Republican Senator Anthony Cannella, who is so proud of undermining local control and raising costs for taxpayers that he used the Senate Republican Caucus communications operation to proclaim his legislative achievement to a gullible press. Here’s a Tweet:

It didn’t go unanswered. I responded with this Tweet:

Senator Cannella may not realize (or may not care) that he represents two cities – Modesto and Merced – that use their charter authority to set their own policies concerning government-mandated construction wage rates (so-called “prevailing wages”). Here is the Modesto policy, set by a 1995 resolution: Modesto Prevailing Wage Policy and Staff Report. Here is the Merced practice: Merced Exempts Rental Housing Preparation from State-Mandated Government Wage Rates (Prevailing Wage). Oh well, sometimes the union lobbyists in Sacramento are a more important constituency than the people back home in the Central Valley.

With the help of Senators Steinberg and Cannella, union lobbyists intend to direct their legislative puppets from Los Angeles and San Francisco to suppress the small and medium-sized cities trying to determine their own financial destinies. To protect union power, these cities must submit to centralized power exercised by the state legislature and Governor Jerry Brown.

In the meantime, the local federalist rebellion continues. In addition to the cities of Temecula and Murrieta, the following California cities are now publicly moving forward on asking their citizens to approve a charter in 2014 (with several more soon to begin public discussion):

Costa Mesa

Outsourcing Back in for Costa MesaOrange County Register (editorial) – February 6, 2013

…passage of Measure V would have made the privatization task easier. But the union outspent Measure V proponents by more than seven-to-one. However, Mr. [Councilman Jim] Righeimer said he hopes a new charter measure will be put on the June 2014 ballot…Within 60 days the council will hold a study session on how to set up the independent committee for the new charter measure.

Escondido

Escondido Mayor Touts Urban Renewal, Embracing DiversitySan Diego Union-Tribune – February 20, 2013

Delivering his annual State of the City address to nearly 300 residents and business leaders gathered at the city’s arts center… [Mayor Sam] Abed said he also wants the city to take another shot at becoming a charter city, which would increase Escondido’s independence from Sacramento and reduce the cost of some city construction projects.

Moreno Valley

Moreno Valley: City to Explore Becoming Charter City – Riverside Press-Enterprise – February 26, 2013

The Moreno Valley City Council on Tuesday, Feb. 26, unanimously approved establishing a subcommittee that would explore becoming a charter city and appointing two council members to it.

Moreno Valley: Charter City Committee Could Be Created  – Riverside Press-Enterprise – February 25, 2013

The Moreno Valley City Council on Tuesday, Feb. 26, is to follow through on plans to determine whether to become a charter city. The council is set to vote on whether to establish a charter exploratory subcommittee and appoint two council members to it.

Buellton

Buellton Continues “Home Rule’ Talk – Santa Ynez Valley News – February 7, 2013

The idea of changing Buellton to a “home-rule” city is on hold again after City Council members decided to set up a workshop for more discussion about a draft plan…City Manager John Kunkel said the committee wants voters to be comfortable with the measure and, if the council wants to have a dialogue with unions, there is no rush.

Charting Best Path to Buellton’s Future – Santa Ynez Valley News (editorial) – February 7, 2013

…being a charter city does mean that local elected officials and voters can make more of their own decisions, and are therefore better able to tailor policy to fit specific local needs…Being a charter city also lets local government off the hook for paying a prevailing wage. Labor unions don’t like that possibility…

Arroyo Grande
Arroyo Grande Considering City Charter – www.CalCoastNews.com – January 28, 2013

The Arroyo Grande City Council has created a committee to explore the idea of becoming a charter city in order to cut costs…Many union members oppose city charters because they allow exemptions from state-mandated prevailing wage agreements. City staff says adopting a charter could save Arroyo Grande $50,000 to $300,000 annually.

Study Under Way to Find Out if Arroyo Grande Should Try to Become a Charter CitySan Luis Obispo Tribune – January 27, 2013

A committee has been convened to study whether Arroyo Grande should try to become a charter city, a move that officials say could save money and give it more local control. The idea, however, faces stiff opposition from local union members…

California cities have two choices about their financial futures: enact a charter as an way to become more cost-efficient, or raise taxes. Guess which choice the unions want?

Kevin Dayton is the President and 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.