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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.

"Each side gave us reasons why (project labor agreements) are cheaper or more expensive," said Rabbitt. "The truth of the matter is, we sit here and we don't know. The only way you will know is to bid a project both ways."

Zane countered, calling the alternate bid approach "untested" and arguing it would overlook the value that supporters see in the deals to boost training through apprentice programs and hold down cost overruns.

"I can't go with the alternate bid approach," she said.

Gorin and McGuire were less vocal but equally steadfast in their opposition. McGuire said the county could continue to rely on its current safeguard -#8212; the ability to reject all bids if they are found to be too costly or otherwise off-base.

"I'm suggesting we treat this just like every other project," he said.

"That's no added protection, Supervisor McGuire," Carrillo shot back, saying that approach wouldn't answer the central question: whether union-rules projects end up being more costly for taxpayers than the status quo.

"The ad hoc committee's intent was to provide a vehicle and an avenue to help assess and quantify what that meant long term," Carrillo said of his work with Rabbitt on the proposal.

Rabbitt said in an interview afterward that he wasn't sure he could support the policy without the alternate bid provision. Carrillo indicated he would vote in favor of the overall policy Jan. 28.

Much of the spirited debate took place in the more than two hours of public comment the board heard on the proposal.

Supporters said they were seeking ways to bolster the middle class and train the next generation in the trades.

"I worry about my kids and grandkids having the same future if we don't support labor here in Sonoma County," said Gary Thornburgh, a retired county resident who looked back on his career affiliated with the International Brother of Electrical Workers Local 551.

Most registered local apprentices are enrolled in union programs and funding for those efforts comes through union dues and fees, which would be paid by all workers on jobs subject to project labor agreements.

Critics say that amounts to interference in a worker's right to choose whether he belongs to a union. For their part, they said they were seeking to preserve fair competition, unfettered by what they called "special interests" representing a minority of the local construction workforce.

"You have a solution in search of a problem," said Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, based in San Diego County. "Project labor agreements are unnecessary, they're discriminatory and they're a waste."

Project labor deals have been around since the 1930s and are common in California, both in the public and private sectors. As few as three counties in the state, however, have policies requiring such deals on their construction projects.

Both sides came armed with statistics and studies on why Sonoma County should or shouldn't join that group. Officials representing the Graton Rancheria, College of Marin and Marin General Hospital all weighed in with their positive experiences with project labor deals or union contracts, which they said save money, assure high quality work and provide a clear path to resolve labor disputes.

"Our casino project came very quickly; it was very efficient, and we came in within budget," said Jeannette Anglin, tribal secretary for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, praising union labor used to build the tribe's new Rohnert Park gaming and dining destination. "We did it and it worked."

For the county, project labor deals wouldn't affect salaries, because all construction workers on public projects receive prevailing wages.

The county identified three projects that would qualify under the policy: a $68 million detention and probation facility, a new $50 million airport terminal, and phased administrative center upgrades, each with a potential value greater than $25 million.

Nonunion contractors said labor agreements would edge them out of competition for those projects, ultimately hurting their employees.

"These guys are the best of the best. I would put them up against anybody for quality of work," said Josh McGarva, president of Santa Rosa-based Western Water Constructors Inc. "I'm not asking you to exclude any of these workers. I'm just asking you to please include us on your projects."

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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