Santa Rosa Junior College trustees approve union-backed construction deal for new $78 million science building
Dispute over a union-backed construction management plan resurfaced this week as Santa Rosa Junior College trustees, once again on a split vote, extended the provisions to include a new $78 million science and technology building.
Sharp words from a construction industry leader and a distinct difference of opinion between board members came during the discussion Tuesday night, which ended in a 4-2 vote to apply the labor agreement to the 109,000-square-foot Lindley Center for STEM Education scheduled to start construction early next year.
Trustee Terry Lindley, for whom the new building is named, and longtime board member Jeff Kunde, who has a new classroom building named after him, were on the losing side of the vote.
Board President Jordan Burns and Trustees Dorothy Battenfeld, Don Edgar and Maggie Fishman backed SRJC President Frank Chong’s recommendation to extend the agreement that was initiated with the ongoing $31.8 million renovation of venerable Burbank Auditorium.
Lindley said nothing on the matter at the meeting and could not be reached for comment Wednesday, while Kunde and Burns expressed divergent opinions on an issue that dates back at least 17 years.
Keith Woods, head of the 1,250-member North Coast Builders Exchange who said he was speaking as “an angry taxpayer,” blasted the board’s support for the labor-friendly agreement, while Jack Buckhorn, head of the North Bay Building & Construction Trades Council, defended the pact he negotiated with SRJC.
Woods said Wednesday he intentionally defied Burns’ effort to cut off his comments after three minutes, with Burns banging his gavel and telling Woods, “Why don’t you go ahead and sit down. We can have you escorted out as well.”
“I laid into them really good,” Woods said in an interview, still speaking as an individual and accusing the board of “ramming through” the decision as an amendment to the agreement adopted in September.
The decision not to take it up as a new agreement, with a scheduled public hearing, was “done as backhandedly as can be” and was “if not illegal, it’s immoral and unethical,’’ he said.
Woods and other nonunion contractors’ representatives have faulted project labor agreements as discriminatory, asserting they reduce competitive bidding and boost costs to taxpayers when applied to public projects.
Kunde, a 16-year board member, noted that SRJC has trimmed operating costs in the face of a 20% drop in student enrollment and said he appreciates the pro-union perspective. But, he said, “I really believe at this time doing a (labor agreement) sends the wrong message to the public at large.”
“We’re not including all the contractors,” Kunde said. “We’re specific to certain contractors. I do have a problem with that.”
Had voters known labor agreements would be used in new SRJC projects they might not have approved the $410 million bond measure in 2014 that is funding the Burbank Auditorium and Lindley Center, Kunde said.
Buckhorn disputed the charge of discrimination, saying that “union and nonunion contractors are bidding and succeeding” on projects under a pre-bidding labor agreement.
The agreements “bring added value and opportunities for local workers and local contractors,” he told the trustees.
Burns dismissed opposition to project labor agreements as “anti- union rhetoric,” adding that “you are either supportive of organized labor or you’re not.”
Woods’ group lobbied hard against the agreement for Burbank Auditorium in 2017, but it was approved on a 4-3 vote, with the aye votes coming from four trustees — Burns, Battenfeld, Fishman and Marianna Martinez — all elected since 2014 with endorsements from the Sonoma County Democratic Party and union groups. Martinez was absent Tuesday.
In 2005, the SRJC board quashed a request by then-new Trustee Marsha Vas Dupre to consider labor agreements. Several board members said the matter had been studied in 2002 and rejected because of concern they would remove local nonunion firms from consideration. That was before a wave of local governments, including the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2014, embraced project labor deals for some of the largest public infrastructure projects.
In an interview Wednesday, Burns rejected assertions by Woods and others that the Burbank agreement was responsible for delays and cost overruns amounting to $3.5 million.
The cost increase was the result of change orders, including $1 million for a new roof on the 85-year-old auditorium, that were unforeseen when the contract was awarded and would have arisen “whether we had (an agreement) or not,” he said. Remarking on the prolonged dispute over project labor agreements, Burns said, “the data is different on both sides. At the end of the day it’s whose data you believe.”
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or email@example.com. On Twitter @guykovner.