Arroyo Grande votes to put charter city proposal on ballot

Over concerns and challenges from union members, the Arroyo Grande City Council decided to push forward with a ballot measure to become a charter city.

Union representatives are specifically concerned with one aspect of the proposed charter — the city’s ability to determine when it will pay prevailing wages on contracts.

Some speakers at Tuesday’s council meeting said the city’s move would hurt local workers, who would receive lower wages and spend less in the community as a result. But some council members disagreed, saying they aren’t eliminating paying the prevailing wage on most projects and that a charter would give the city more local control and possibly save money.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens to do things in a financially responsible manner,” Councilman Tim Brown said. “And this gives us more flexibility.”

The council voted 4-1, with Councilwoman Kristen Barneich dissenting, to proceed with the process to place the charter measure on the Nov. 4 general election ballot and to use $10,000 toward public education efforts.

Barneich said she believed the prevailing wage issue should be placed on a separate ballot at a later time, after the outcome of a new law is decided.

Councilman Jim Guthrie was in favor of splitting the issues into two separate measures — one on whether Arroyo Grande should become a charter city, the other only dealing with prevailing wage — but putting both before voters at the same time. In the end, though, he went along with the majority of the council.

The council will hold a second hearing to get additional public comment, likely in April, after some public education materials are distributed. If the council decides to proceed, it would need to wait 21 days after the second hearing to place the measure on the November ballot.

The measure would change Arroyo Grande from a general law to a charter city, allowing the city to use mail-in ballots for special elections, establish its own criteria to award public works contracts, accept gifts and donations of material or labor, and use city employees to construct public works projects.

City officials stressed that they would not include any language in the charter that would give them greater ability to raise city council salaries or increase taxes, beyond what general law cities are already allowed to do.

They also criticized mailers that recently were sent to Arroyo Grande residents claiming that changing to a charter city would allow “city council members to raise their own pay, increase fees and give away tax dollars with no strings attached.”

Council members have not increased their pay since 2000, and could do so now as a general law city, City Manager Steve Adams said.

The draft charter also would include guidelines to determine when prevailing wage must be paid and when it could be waived on projects. State law defines the prevailing wage as the hourly rate within the local labor market that most workers in a particular trade are paid.

Numerous speakers at the council’s meeting said that to allow exemptions from paying prevailing wage could result in more on-the-job injuries, poor workmanship and cost overruns.

“When workers are paid good wages they have more money to spend locally,” said Brent Jenkins, special representative for the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters in Arroyo Grande. “As you know, this is not a cheap place to live.”

A few others disputed the notion that there aren’t experienced, non-union firms that could do efficient work for the city.

Adams said research by city staff found that state prevailing wage requirements increase public works project costs, on average, by 5 percent to 30 percent.

In the meantime, he and other officials are keeping a close eye on Senate Bill 7, signed into law in October, which prohibits a charter city from using state funding for construction projects if the city inks a contract without prevailing wage requirements after Jan. 1, 2015.

The law could face legal challenges, but any outcome is not expected for months or years.