The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to advance a controversial policy that would establish union rules, benefits and oversight on large county construction projects.
The move, which awaits formal approval later this month, was a clear show of the greater political muscle unions have with the newly composed board, which took up the change after a slightly different group of supervisors turned it back in 2012.
Proponents found their strongest support Tuesday in Supervisors Shirlee Zane, Mike McGuire and Susan Gorin, who secured revisions sought by unions that broadened the draft policy even further.
The board majority also succeeded in stripping a key provision opposed by unions but sought by Supervisors David Rabbitt and Efren Carrillo to show any impacts such contracts would have on taxpayer costs.
Union leaders, who turned out their rank-and-file members by the dozens Tuesday, were buoyant with the results of their activism.
"Public policy and politics are not a spectator sport," said Jack Buckhorn, president of the North Bay Labor Council, a large coalition of labor groups. "Today I think the board made some very good decisions."
Debate over the issue, long one of the county's most divisive, played out over a 5?-hour hearing, with more than 70 speakers voicing support or opposition to the proposal.
Union members touted the so-called project labor agreements on public works projects as a way to promote local hiring, enhance job training and extend union benefits to nonunion workers.
But nonunion contractors and trade groups have long contended that such deals discourage their firms from competing for projects, force them to act as union employers and drive up construction costs for taxpayers.
For years, the unaffiliated builders have dueled with unions in election campaigns and inside local government chambers. Some of their leaders voiced bitter disappointment Tuesday evening.
"I think some of the supervisors absolutely embarrassed themselves on some of the key issues," said Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group. He called out the trio of supervisors that pushed for the revisions sought by unions.
"It's a sad day for Sonoma County taxpayers and much of the construction community," Woods said.
The board did not vote, but it was unanimous in endorsing many of the least controversial provisions of the policy. It was put forward by Rabbitt and Carrillo, the two current county supervisors who opposed the policy in 2012. They were joined at that time by Supervisor Valerie Brown, who was succeeded last year by Gorin.
At the top of the consensus list Tuesday, supervisors agreed to lower the dollar threshold at which county projects would qualify for labor deals.
The new value would be $10 million for all projects; the draft policy had proposed $25 million for federally funded projects and $10 million for locally and state-funded plans.
The board also agreed on a recommendation to cap the number of existing employees a nonunion contractor could bring to a job, requiring the remainder to come through local union hiring halls.
The board split sharply, however, over one of the most closely watched provisions.
It would have established an alternative bid process without the union rules to compete against a parallel process with bids conforming to union rules.
Rabbitt and Carrillo pressed strongly for the measure, saying it offered a needed test of taxpayer value, illuminating what extra costs, if any, come under union-rules bids and what they pay for.