There are times when a hearing at the Board of Supervisors can afford everyone a glimpse into the true complexities of decision making, and also open a window on larger issues at stake in our community. One such hearing occurred last week. It had to do with the bids on a water recycling facility, a major component of the Los Osos wastewater project.
Due to irregularities in the bid process, the board had to reject the lowest bidder on this critical element of the project, and in doing so had to side with a staff decision to choose a construction firm that could cost $1.8 million more than the lowest bidder and does its own in-house electrical work. The board did so after a lengthy, late-hours deliberation, and did so with solid advice from staff. As was made clear at the meeting, the lowest bidder made a critical mistake in its bid that could not be waived. Thus, the next lowest bidder that had no mistakes in its bid was selected.
Bidding on major infrastructure projects is complicated, especially because there are federal and state regulations that must be followed. There is very little flexibility for local government, and a lot of case law to keep us in check. Mistakes perceived to give one firm an unfair advantage, even if inadvertent, cannot be waived.
I voted “no” because, as I explained at the time, the lowest bidder would subcontract tens of thousands of man-hours to local electrical workers, and I just could not at that moment vote against local jobs.
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Every day I have been in office, I have spent no small amount of time working to grow our local economy — sometimes with terrific results, sometimes without them, but it has become a passion, and probably my most important focus. And while my vote in this instance was ultimately symbolic, I felt emotionally compelled to make that decision despite the best practical decision being the one the board’s majority made. (The vote to award the contract was 3-2, with Hill and Caren Ray voting “no.”)
So why I am I writing about this? The answer is, like our deliberation and individual decisions, complicated, but I hope edifying.
Despite many challenges, including an increasingly disastrous drought, our local economy is steadily improving. Our unemployment rate continues to decline to one of the lowest in the state, and we have seen many local companies that provide critical head-of-household jobs grow and commit to staying here. But I also know there are many — too many — people in our community still hurting. There are many still without jobs, or those who’ve taken lesser-paying jobs than they once held. The effects of this sort of struggle are intense and too often overlooked when the economy improves. But I know about it firsthand, having experienced it throughout my childhood, and its impacts left an enormous imprint on me.
My father, a job foreman, often endured long stretches of unemployment, and the strain this caused him and our family was terrible. It is hard to describe the mix of emotions that occurs when families cut back and cut back and look at their bills and squint at their immediate prospects and find themselves wondering, “Are we gonna make it?” This sort of despair, even when overcome, can ravage the dignity and hope of people and make them feel not only alienated from their families and their communities, but also from themselves.
By far, the deepest satisfaction I have enjoyed is when I have helped a business, even in a small way, retain or create good jobs for our community. And the times when I have felt the greatest gloom have been when I have had to be part of a decision that, for some very justifiable reason or set of circumstances or even the greater community good, may have prevented certain jobs from materializing.
So the other night, when I listened to pleas of local electrical workers, I was reminded of my father’s lifelong struggle to “make it,” and the disappointment and anger one can feel when an opportunity doesn’t materialize. At that point, the reasons and justifications don’t matter and the common good is of no solace.
That is why, no matter how good our economy does, we need to also keep in mind it is never easy for many of our fellow citizens working and trying to work here. Which is why it is also so important to celebrate our successes and do what we can to have a job-welcoming environment that is well-balanced with our common community values. I voted “no” on the item before us at the hearing the other night, and I was wrong, and I was right, and I was not at all settled in my thoughts until the next morning, when I wrote this.