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After one of the most closely watched meetings in recent campus history, Santa Rosa Junior College will open negotiations with labor groups to see if it can strike a deal requiring union rules, benefits and oversight of a major construction project paid for with some of the $410 million in bond funds passed by voters in 2014.

The Board of Trustees on Tuesday voted 4-3 to authorize President Frank Chong to move forward with the disputed talks following a standing-room-only meeting that saw passions flare on both sides of the controversial issue.

Chong acknowledged at the outset that the issue had been a singularly divisive one for the board but that he hoped he could eventually help it find consensus on whether so-called project labor agreements were right for the 99-year-old public college.

“This is without a doubt the most controversial, contentious and polarizing policy issue that has come before this board in my six years at SRJC,” Chong said.

Supporting the item were Chairwoman Maggie Fishman, Dorothy Battenfeld, Mariana Martinez and Jordan Burns, a majority formed by board members elected since 2014 with endorsements from the Sonoma County Democratic Party and union groups.

The trio who voted against the proposal were Jeff Kunde, Don Edgar and Terry Lindley.

The board majority ultimately agreed to see if an agreement could be forged covering a single major upcoming construction project, such as the $21 million renovation of Burbank Auditorium, the $40 million in upgrades to various athletic facilities or the proposed $60 million science, technology engineering and math building. If a deal could be struck that supports the hiring of local workers, broadens apprenticeship programs and contains construction costs, Chong said he would bring a draft back to the board in the fall for its approval.

If the board agreed to advance a project at that point, the work would then be closely analyzed during the course of construction to see if the agreement met the goals.

Before the discussion began Tuesday, Chong urged the assembled crowd to avoid “black and white thinking,” which he said was prevalent in public discourse today but was “not constructive, practical or helpful” in such a complex policy decision.

“Clearly the PLA issue is an emotional one, and I ask both sides to turn down the volume,” Chong said. “Today we open the discussion, not close it.”

Supporters and opponents of project labor agreements made competing presentations, with supporters contending that such deals would avoid delays on major projects, provide nonunion workers decent benefits, ensure high-quality workmanship on projects and boost apprenticeship programs.

Jack Buckhorn, head of the Sonoma Lake & Mendocino Counties Building & Construction Trades Council, extolled the virtues of such agreements, claiming they had grown “over 400 percent” in recent years because of their demonstrated value.

“PLAs are now proven to be an exceptional construction management tool that creates 21st century worksite efficiencies, giving added security by delivering complex construction projects on time and on budget with taxpayer accountability, while building public trust,” Buckhorn said.

Opponents countered that such deals discriminate against nonunion contractors, undermine competitive bidding, drive up costs unnecessarily and fund union apprenticeship programs with tax dollars meant for construction projects. Former longtime trustee Rick Call, who was ousted last year by Mariana Martinez, a newcomer backed by the Sonoma County Democratic Party and union groups, asserted that adopting a PLA would mean “openly discriminating against about eight of 10 construction workers in Northern California,” citing the approximate ratio of nonunion contractors to total contractors in the area.

“Make the best decision for the students. Don’t make a political decision,” Call said.

Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a trade group representing 750 mostly nonunion contractors, turned up the heat on the trustees, suggesting they were “predisposed” to pursue project labor agreements and therefore hadn’t sought input from the contractor community.

“You didn’t want to hear what these people had to say, so we’re going to tell you,” Woods said.

Woods then distributed results of a survey his group conducted which showed that of the 202 contractors who responded, 74 percent believed the labor deals generally increase costs, and 75 percent said they’re likely to reduce the number of bidders on a job.

“How could you possibly even consider this?” Woods asked. He then answered his own question, suggesting the trustees were, in effect, beholden to the unions that supported them.

“If you feel obligated to somebody for your vote just blink twice and show me that you’re stuck and you owe it as a political favor and that you get it that PLAs are just bad for the community,” Woods said.

Some of the four new members of the board elected since 2014 with labor support have said they signed pledges supporting workers’ rights to unionize and expressed openness to project labor agreements, but not a commitment to approve them.

Kunde, who represents eastern Sonoma County, said he couldn’t support the move, claiming it was contrary to the school’s “core values” of inclusivity and could jeopardize the SRJC Foundation’s fundraising efforts.

“There is a lot of risk here with this thing,” Kunde said. “It’s not just about PLAs. It is much larger than that,” Kunde said.

Burns, who represents western Sonoma County, didn’t take too kindly to the suggestion voiced by Woods — and originally published in an editorial in The Press Democrat — that he and others who received union support were now obliged to do their bidding.

“I believe I’ve done as much as I possibly could to listen to all sides of the argument,” Burns said. “And for the record, I am not for sale to anyone, for any price. Period.”

At the last minute, trustees Edgar and Burns proposed expanding the negotiations beyond a single project.

Chong was adamant, however, that the negotiations be “project specific” and not be triggered by a size threshold, such as Sonoma County has for any project over $10 million.

Edgar, an attorney, said he felt limiting the negotiations to a single project would “unnaturally and unnecessarily constrains the negotiations.”

But Chong strongly advised the board against making that change, telling the board that “the buck stops here” and that the restriction to a single project was purposeful.

“I’m not artificially contraining it, I’m directly contraining it for purposes of fiscal prudency,” Chong said.

Only Edgar and Burns voted to expand the negotiations beyond a single project, and the unexpected amendment failed.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.