Amid layoffs, Golden Gate Bridge leadership comes into sharp focus in Sonoma County
Under pressure from union interests, Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday could jettison the county’s longest-serving board member on the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District in favor of a candidate put forward by labor groups who are fighting deep layoffs at the agency.
Labor advocates are pushing county supervisors to install veteran union representative Chris Snyder, replacing Petaluma-based political consultant Brian Sobel, who is backed by the business community.
Both sides are lobbying the Board of Supervisors over what in the past has been a largely routine and little-watched appointment.
“It is unprecedented,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board’s senior incumbent. “I’ve never seen anything like this before in this type of appointment. It’s a new phenomenon.”
The seat is one of eighteen filled by six member counties that oversee the bridge district, which operates Bay Area bus routes, a ferry system and maintains the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
The tug-of-war over board membership — and Sonoma County’s latest appointment — comes as the toll- and fee-funded district grapples with stark funding challenges during a coronavirus pandemic that has sharply reduced commuter traffic and cut into critical revenue streams.
Officials estimate ferry usage is down 96% compared to last year, while bus usage is down 75% and car traffic across the bridge is down 30%, creating a $48 million shortfall for a district that has for months relied on federal coronavirus relief to pay workers during the downturn.
With that funding set to run out by the end of November, and a second federal stimulus package unlikely before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in next year, the district’s board last week voted to lay off nearly 150 workers starting in January, a move union representatives have battled for weeks.
In response, union leaders have ramped up their calls for stronger labor representation on the board.
“Our basic position is that in this crisis, with COVID, it’s time for a worker’s voice to be on the Golden Gate Bridge board of directors,” said Jack Buckhorn, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, which is backing Snyder, the assistant political director and district representative for Local 3 of the Operating Engineers.
Sobel, a former Petaluma councilman who was first appointed to the district board 12 years ago and serves as chair of the its finance committee, wants to maintain his seat. He touts his experience and connections as crucial for the future of a transportation district in tumult.
One of his supporters, Supervisor David Rabbitt, has served on the board with Sobel since Rabbitt was elected in 2010. He favors continuity in keeping Sobel on the board.
“There’s no reason, certainly, to shift – especially now, with the precarious position the district finds itself in,” said Rabbitt, who called the lobbying effort a “litmus test for labor issues.”
Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin, who signaled that there are enough votes to appoint Snyder to the position, was nonplused by the sudden tussle over the seat.
“It’s not a fiasco,” she said. “Just politics.”
Sobel and Snyder have known each other for years and worked on the same side of some key issues in the county. In interviews this week, both laid claim to being moderate coalition builders.
Sobel said his tenure on the board has allowed him forge important relationships for Sonoma County, including with San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who served with Sobel when Breed was a San Francisco supervisor.
“When I make a call, it gets answered,” Sobel said.
Snyder, who just returned to California after working with the Biden presidential campaign in Nevada, said his connections at all levels of government would pay off for Sonoma County and the North Bay.
“There’s no way I could have gotten over 25 organizations and civic leaders to support me if they didn’t think I had the experience to do the job,” Snyder said. “It’s not a labor vs. management thing. They believe I’m a qualified person.”
On his Facebook page, Snyder highlighted endorsements from Reps. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, as well as state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.
Sobel, a former planning commissioner and vice mayor of Petaluma who also serves as board chair for the Bank of Marin, said the move to unseat him is tied directly to labor discontent over the pending layoffs.
He was dismayed by the campaign, but said it was to be expected.
Since the pandemic began, Sobel said, the bridge district has continued to pay bus drivers and ferry workers even for the shifts that were unfilled.
Buckhorn, however, said that any suggestion that workers were being paid while they stayed home was false. Most workers who aren’t at their normal posts have been shifted to other jobs, he said.
A spokesman for the Golden Gate Bridge district said more workers are being put on paid standby since mid-September. That includes bus drivers, more of whom are on standby than at the wheel, said district spokesman Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz. Half of those standby drivers receive a full day’s pay even if they don’t work eight hours, he said.
More than half of the proposed 146 layoffs will be bus drivers, which will see their ranks reduced by 88. The district typically employs about 245 drivers. An additional 59 positions that aren’t currently filled will also be cut, according to district documents.
Although the layoffs won’t take effect until January, bosses began informing workers Monday.
Marina Secchitano, president of the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific, representing ferry workers, said 21 deckhands were given yellow layoff notices Monday in a lineup while on the job. She bristled at quick notice, coming “before the ink was even dry” on the board’s decision from last week.
“We’re all up against a serious problem. But adversity really shows who we are,” Secchitano said. “How are we going to deal with this humanely and support our workers?”
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org.