Arthur Salm: Council kicks sand in bullies’ faces
The initiative process opens the door to all kinds of mischief, most of it backed by interests with very deep pockets.
By Arthur Salm, SDNN
San Diego News Network
When you actually get to see a bully in action, it’s breathtaking, in a can-you-believe-that-guy? kind of way.
Few people saw it - after all, it was the last agenda item, it came up after five and a half hours of talk, and it was late, late in the evening. But at the May 12 Chula Vista City Council meeting, George Hawkins, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, put on quite a show.
San Diego: Arthur Salm is an SDNN columnist.
After a supportive lead-in from Mayor Cheryl Cox, Hawkins stood at the lectern and informed the council members that unless they placed an initiative on the ballot for the June 2010 election - an initiative that his organization has failed so far to place via the by-the-book signature-gathering process - they’d sue the city (over an earlier petition rejected for what the city clerk determined to be improper paperwork). That, Hawkins said, would cost the taxpayers a bundle. The initiative’s going get on the ballot one way or another, he declared, and if his group goes out and gets the required signatures, that will trigger a special election, costing the city even more.San Diego: sdnn-opinion1
Do it, Hawkins told the council members, or Chula Vista will also end up paying “not only your attorney fees, but ours.” He indicated that if the city council plays ball, the lawsuit will likely go away.
Translation: Even with our hired-gun signature-gatherers, we haven’t been able to meet the requirements to get our initiative on the ballot. But we’ve got the money and we’ve got the juice, so if you guys don’t put it on there for us, we’re going to turn the citizens of Chula Vista upside down and shake some serious coin out of their pockets. Figures ranging from $600,000 to $1.4 million got tossed around.
Hawkins didn’t shout. He didn’t shake his fist. Had he sported a Snidley Whiplash-style mustache, he probably wouldn’t have twirled it. He didn’t even glower. He spoke calmly and matter-of-factly, and it was downright chilling. The link is here if you want to watch; just click on the May 12 video. Mayor Cox’s warm and fuzzy introduction starts at hour 5:31.
And here’s what the Associated Builders and Contractors want: Their ballot initiative would prohibit project labor agreements, which are collectively bargained labor agreements for city-funded construction projects. They deal with wages, hours, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment. Typically a PLA will set a living wage, include medical benefits, and ensure that a certain percentage of the workers hired for a project live in the community. (Backers of the Associated Builders and Contractors’ initiative refer to it as a “fair and open competition ordinance,” a textbook example of nomenclature obfuscation; the art reached its dizziest heights with George W. Bush and his Clear Skies and Healthy Forest Initiatives.)
The response to Hawkins’ threat was immediate and compelling; this, too, made for good TV. (See that link, above? If you skipped it, click it now.) The outrage of the speakers following Hawkins seemed evenly directed toward the Associated Builders and Contractors’ would-be initiative itself and the audacity of their tactics.
“I’ve never witnessed such a scene of extortion in my life,” painter Paul Vauchelet told the council. A project labor agreement, he said, “is about working people and benefits and paying good wages. … You politicians are our last line of defense.”
The Labor Council’s Lorena Gonzalez let the council know that as long as they were considering placing initiatives on the ballot just because it’s cheaper, she had lots of ideas. How about a living-wage ordinance? “That would really benefit the workers,” she said.
Even after five years on the city council, Steve Castaneda said that every once in a while he still gets completely amazed - and he seemed floored by Hawkins’ proposal. Stating flatly that the council should refuse to cave in to threats, he added - and this shouldn’t have been necessary - “Unfortunately, democracy is an expensive endeavor.”
‘Round midnight it went to a vote. Pamela Bensoussan and Rudy Ramirez joined Castaneda in voting No; Mayor Cox and John McCann stood with the builders and contractors. Defeated, 3-2. A nice “almost” for the bullies...