The Coast Community College District on Wedensday shot down a request to draft an agreement that would pre-negotiate hiring terms with local unions for almost $700 million in construction projects.
The idea has split the Board of Trustees and drawn sometimes-heated debate for months.
And that acrimony could continue, according to one trustee.
“Our future as a board is going to be intensely divided after this because this is a basic human right in my opinion,” Trustee Jerry Patterson said.
The disagreement came to a head with the board’s 3-2 vote rejecting what’s known as a project-labor agreement, or PLA.
The overarching agreement with local unions could have governed hiring practices on every project paid for by $698 million of bond money voters approved in November under Measure M.
Since March, the idea of a PLA drew hours of public testimony, although the board never drafted or presented such an agreement.
Trustees had been debating whether or not to begin the process, sparking vociferous responses from union members, nonunion activists and trustees.
At one point, Patterson — the board’s most vocal proponent of the agreement — stepped down from the dais to give a roughly 45-minute presentation about PLAs.
“The Board of Trustees did not receive — you have still not received — the objective pros and cons,” he said. “The Board of Trustees deserves that.”
More than 20 public speakers followed. Many were union members who had attended previous meetings to support drafting a PLA.
They argued that the agreement can insure quality labor, keep hiring local and give preference to workers like veterans and minorities.
Opponents, such as the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn., have argued a PLA would simply be a giveaway to unions that increases costs and funnels hiring through their halls.
“Honestly, I don’t understand exactly why we’re going through this exercise,” Trustee Mary Hornbuckle said hours into the debate.
The college district’s vice chancellor had assured the board any hiring terms desired in a PLA could be included in individual contracts, she said.
“The PLA — or the CWA or any of those other alphabet soups you’ve mentioned this evening — I don’t think are necessary and only make us look like we’re not respecting the wishes of the community,” she said, noting she doesn’t believe Measure M would have passed with the indication there would be a PLA.
Patterson originally placed a proposal to draft a PLA, which he also called a Community Workforce Agreement, on the board’s agenda months ago.
He and Trustee Jim Moreno pressed to move forward with the idea, but the three other board members either delayed a vote on the topic or asked a task force to consider pros and cons, saying the idea was sprung on them.
Patterson said he and others were stifled by that task force, which the board appointed in April to include two board members, a handful of staff members and a member of the district’s citizen’s advisory committee.
“This was the strangest task force I think the chancellor’s ever seen, certainly the strangest one I’ve ever seen,” Patterson said.
More than half the task force’s 75-minute meeting was spent establishing speaking limits, he said.
Trustee David Grant, who also served on the task force, reminded him there were more discussions on the topic.
“We also had another meeting before that, if you recall.” he said. “But far beyond that, I did my homework.”
Other trustees echoed that sentiment, citing the hours of public testimony on the topic, “countless” letters they received and their own research.
After a number of attempts by Moreno and Patterson to alter the motion killing the PLA, Grant joined Hornbuckle and Board President Lorraine Prinsky in voting against any such agreement.
“I worked like a dog to get [Measure M] passed,” Grant said. “We never had any discussion before that of whether or not there would be some project labor agreement.”
Ethically he objected to the agreement because he promised voters there would be free and open bidding, which he believed implied there would be no PLA, he said.
“I must have said that 150 times,” Grant said. “I can not go back on that.”
After rejecting the overarching agreement, the board directed staff to return with a template contract that could be used to meet their hiring goals on individual projects.
After more than an hour spent crafting that motion, trustees unanimously directed staff to draft contract language for issues like hiring locals, veterans, students and apprentices.
“This is getting silly,” Hornbuckle said of the length of the discussions.