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SRJC board approves union-backed plan for $23 million project

With some harsh words from both sides, a narrow majority of the Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees voted Tuesday to apply a union-backed construction management plan to the upcoming $23 million renovation of Burbank Auditorium.

The 4-3 decision — with Trustees Dorothy Battenfeld, Mariana Martinez, Jordan Burns and Chairwoman Maggie Fishman voting “aye” — mirrored the vote in June that authorized President Frank Chong to negotiate a so-called project stabilization agreement with the Sonoma Lake & Mendocino Counties Building & Construction Trades Council.

The four trustees were elected since 2014 with endorsements from the Sonoma County Democratic Party and union groups.

Trustees Jeff Kunde, Don Edgar and Terry Lindley repeated their vote against the agreement.

Letters by Democratic congressmen Mike Thompson of St. Helena and Jared Huffman of San Rafael supporting labor agreements were read by aides during the board’s public hearing, attended by about 150 people.

Burns blasted the campaign against the agreement, led by the North Coast Builders Exchange, calling it a “disgrace” and saying “falsehoods” in mailers and robocalls were intended to “confuse the community.”

Burns rejected the opposition’s repeated claims that board members supporting the agreement had made campaign pledges to do so.

“No, I did not pledge my vote to any organization,” he said.

Nothing in the agreement prohibits non-union contractors from participating in the project, Burns said, contradicting the opposition’s assertion the agreements are discriminatory and reduce competition, leading to higher project costs.

Kunde cited the college’s commitment to inclusiveness and said the agreement “flies in the face of that — it’s exclusiveness.”

“In my opinion we’ve turned this into a political agenda,” he said.

Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the builders group, said trustees “made up your minds when you ran for office.”

Former trustee Rick Call said it was hard to understand why the board was “moving away from the sound practice …... of competitive bidding” to enact a process that is unfair to small, local contractors.

The 31-page agreement includes cost-control measures, including prohibition of labor strikes and contractor lockouts, an apprenticeship program that will award associate degrees to people who complete the construction trades training, and a provision to track the ZIP codes of all workers to determine how many are local, SRJC officials said.

Workers will be paid the “prevailing wage” established by the state, Jack Buckhorn, head of the construction trades council, said previously. Workers will pay a form of dues but will not be required to join a union, he said.

After the board vote, Woods said the outcome was “not unexpected but hugely disappointing.”

“It was a foregone conclusion,” he said. “They were all pre-obligated.”

The board’s action “killed off” SRJC’s tradition of open competition for construction contracts,” Woods said.

Buckhorn said the “aggressive, bullying tactics” of the opposition did not work.

“Now we have the opportunity to go out there and perform and meet all the metrics (for success),” he said. “We believe this agreement is going to be highly successful.”

Chong said previously that applying the agreement to the auditorium renovation is basically a test. If it works well, he said, similar agreements could be applied to other campus projects funded by a $410 million bond measure approved by voters in 2014.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.