In what would be a dramatic shift in policy, a majority of the Santa Barbara City Council wants to hire only local unionized workers for the city’s major capital construction projects.
“This is really a generational opportunity to make sure that the projects we build going forward save taxpayer dollars by being quality construction of the highest degree,” said Councilman Gregg Hart, who made the proposal with Councilman Eric Friedman.
“The better constructed building has a longer life and a lower operating cost.”
Hart is pushing for the change before he leaves office on Jan. 1 to join the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors as the new Second District representative.
At his urging, the council voted 4-3 last week to direct staff to draft a proposed ordinance “immediately” for the Ordinance Committee to consider. Hart and Friedman were joined by Mayor Cathy Murillo and Councilman Oscar Gutierrez. Dissenting were Council members Jason Dominguez, Randy Rowse and Kristen Sneddon.
City Attorney Ariel Calonne was clearly uncomfortable with the speed of the request, stating that other high-priority items would have to move down the list.
“If the council would like to get this done by Jan. 1, we would hire help,” he said. “If you want to get it done in three months, we’re going to need money and we’re going to need it next week.”
Currently, the City of Santa Barbara accepts the lowest bid that meets the requirements of the construction job. Sometimes winning bidders are not based in Santa Barbara, or they may be non-union.
The proposed workforce agreement requires that contractors bidding on city jobs hire their craft labor through local union halls or through a referral system.
“This make sure that the folks who are doing the plumbing, and the heating and air conditioning, and all the other very precise trades are highly skilled people who will do a good job,” Hart said.
“Unions spend a lot of money and time training those workers so there is a quality workforce in each of those sub-specialties.”
He suggested the local union workforce rules would apply to projects costing more than $1 million.
Friedman said he doesn’t want local construction jobs going to workers from Los Angeles or other areas.
“We have an obligation to prioritize our local workforce first,” he said. “We should prioritize our families in our county, in our city, first.”
Murillo said she wants the agreement in place for the construction of the new police station.
“It’s a matter of safety, quality, efficiency,” she said.
The proposal’s rush job didn’t sit well with the dissenters.
“I can’t see this happening in three months,” Dominguez said.
Sneddon said the council should not set policy based on one member’s schedule.
“I appreciate that you would prefer to have it … done before you leave, Councilman Hart,” Sneddon said. “But I don’t want to rush what is foundationally different about how we are doing business.”
Rowse was frustrated by the entire proposal, which he said would require a change to the city charter — and the votes of five council members for approval.
He also raised the issue of the Measure C sales tax that was approved by voters last year as a way to fund the city’s capital projects. He suggested the proposal should have been considered before that vote.
“It’s no big secret that a lot of the general public is skeptical about the relationship between unions and elected officials,” he said. “So a lot of the feedback we are going to get is, is this just going to be union payback?”
If a local community workforce agreement is not enacted by the end of the year, Murillo asked, could the council whip up something just for the police station first?
Calonne recommended against that.
“We have to build the foundation correctly regardless of whether we build one story or 20 stories,” he said.
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.