SANTA ROSA -- The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning voted 4-0 in favor of adopting a project labor agreement policy for public construction projects larger than $10 million, a matter contentiously debate between organized labor and local nonunion contractors for the past year and a half and that goes back decades.

Board Chairman David Rabbit, who had expressed the most reservations about the policy that the board ultimately settled on, was absent and didn't vote.

The policy calls for Sonoma County to adopt a PLA for construction projects of $10 million or more. Initial discussions and proposed policy had recommended a $25 million threshold for federally funded projects and $10 million for state funded projects, but a majority of the board opted to lower the number to $10 million for all projects.

The policy also calls for hiring agreements to include at least 70 percent of  "core workers" -- chiefly from Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Mendocino counties -- and requirements for pre-apprentice and technical workforce training programs for local workers.

Not in the final policy was an "alternate bid" provision, which would call for bidding based on a PLA being in place and not. Opponents had advocated for the provision, if any countywide PLA policy were adopted. Allowing for alternate bid, they said, would enable nonunion contractors to better compete while also seeing which bid would be lower and more cost-effective.

But a majority of the board disagreed, saying that the county already has the authority to reject bids it deems too high. As such, it would put out all projects to bid under a PLA.

Jack Buckhorn, president of the North Bay Labor Council, said the "alternate bid" provision amounted to a "loophole" for nonunion contractors to under bid on projects. He also said he hoped that now that the divisive issue is seemingly settled, he hopes to prove to skeptics and opponents that PLAs will prove beneficial for the county.

"I don't look at them as adversaries," he said of opponents, chiefly the North Coast Builders Exchange and its outspoken leader, Keith Woods, who often vociferously lobbied the board of supervisor to reject PLAs. "We're on the same page more often than not, and I hope to prove all their worst fears unfounded. That is what we believe will happen when we have the chance to use the PLA. Hopefully the animus about this issue will decrease with time."

Opponents included scores of independent contractors, many represented by the  Builders Exchange, who argued that PLAs drive up costs and are discriminatory against nonunion construction outfits. Proponents included organized labor across the North Bay, including AFL-CIO and the Labor Council.

"We are all thrilled," said LisaMaldonado, executive director of the Labor Council. "It's a huge win for all working people, not just unions -- it makes sure our tax dollars are going to hire the best companies."

Chris Snyder, district representative for Operating Engineers Local #3, touted the training programs for younger workers in the region.

"The countywide project labor agreement is really a step in the right direction for workforce development and local hire in Sonoma County," he said. "The Operating Engineers are the only recognized apprenticeship program in the state and county and this agreement will assist in the training of hundreds of local residents." 

The policy does not permit "double payment of benefits, where contractors provide existing equivalent benefit plans." All trades and unions would be signatory to the PLA. That means there could only be one agreement per project.

Under the new policy, the board will approve each project PLA for projects that qualify. Upon approval, the PLA would become part of all bidding documents, and all bidding contractors would have to agree to be bound by rules set forth in the PLA.

Potential PLA projects include the planned county community corrections center, which is estimated to cost $68 million; comprehensive county facilities plan projects, which could cost $25 million; and a new terminal at Charles M. Schulz--Sonoma County Airport, expected to cost $60 million.

Union representatives said they're similarly targeting Santa Rosa City Council members about a citywide PLA policy, although Mr. Buckhorn said those matters are still tentative.