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Controversial Project Labor Agreement mandate tabled

No action was taken Tuesday on a Superior (WI) City Council proposal to require project labor agreements on all municipal contracts. That doesn’t mean the issue is dead and won’t be resurrected once an opinion can be obtained from the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office concerning a possible conflict of interest by the proposal’s author, Councilor Dan Olson.

The agreements promise labor harmony and require contractors, irrespective of their union affiliation, to follow local collective bargaining agreements. Nationally, they are subject of numerous legal challenges and debate. Some states are considering bans on such accords, which opponents contend favor unions over merit-based contractors and are criticized for driving public project costs.

The city submitted a letter to the Attorney General’s office last week after The Daily Telegram questioned officials about the potential for a conflict of interest. Olson serves as a business manager for the Building and General Laborers Local 1091, one of 16 local construction trades unions.

Wisconsin law states, “No local public official may use his or her public position or office to obtain financial gain or anything of substantial value” for himself, immediate family or an associated organization.

City Attorney Frog Prell cautioned councilors against discussing or acting on the issue because Olson could be conflicted by the nature of his employment.

“I’m simply suggesting the council sit on this for a period of time to allow us to get a better feel for how that issue might play out,” Prell said, concerning the city’s efforts to gain a legal opinion. “... I present that even submitting to your co-councilors the merits of the proposal that was in front of the committee could be deemed ultimately a breach of some sort.”

Prell said past practice has been for conflicted councilors to remove themselves physically from the discussion and vote. He said action by the council could be “undone or … deemed void or voided by virtue of a conclusion of a finding of a conflict” of interest.

Councilor Ed Anderson said he didn’t see where Olson’s involvement presented a conflict of interest.

“I don’t know where you draw the nexus that Mr. Olson is getting some kind of personal financial benefit out of it. I don’t see that.”

In an interview last week, Olson said, “there is no doubt that I would get a small compensation in the form of working dues.”

In spite of the caution from the city attorney, councilors discussed the issue at length after Jackie Stenberg and Esther Dalbec moved to receive and file the proposal, and Olson made a presentation about its intent.

“What I am proposing is from my position as a city councilor — I see the need in this city for local labor,” Olson said. “I see the need for us to employ people that live here, that pay our taxes, pay our storm utility runoff fees, pay our high prices in gas, pay our high prices in produce. As a councilor, I do have construction experience that I am trying to use in this and in the best interest of the city of Superior. The proposal … contrary to the criticism that I have very eloquently taken in the last three days … we need to employ our people that live here.”

He said the project labor agreement ordinance would enable the city to do that.

“My sole intention here is to keep people living in the city,” Olson said. “I had that in my campaign that I wanted economic development and part of that is to retain the people that live here, to provide them with employment, to provide them with a living wage and to have them live in their homes and not be forced out of town to live in other places.”

City ordinance already requires contractors on public works projects to pay prevailing wages. Olson’s proposal goes further, requiring all contractors to abide by union work rules. It makes unions the bargaining authority for all workers, irrespective of their union affiliation or desire to be represented.

“If it’s not broke, I don’t know what we’re fixing,” Stenberg said.

“I’m kind of wondering what we’re trying to fix,” said Council President Tom Bridge. “I’m kind of concerned here that if you limit this to local people, you’re taking benefit away from the taxpayers as a whole because they pay more when you leave people out. We almost gave away $150,000 about a month or so ago, just because of a local labor issue as opposed to bringing someone here from Wausau.”

In April, Olson abstained from voting on the city contract for capping the landfill because members of Local 1091 stood to benefit if it had been awarded to RJS, which entered a bid about $150,000 higher than the Wausau company that was ultimately given the work.

Anderson said there is a value to the public in having labor harmony outlined by a project labor agreement. He likened it to having insurance.

“I think there’s some certainty in having these things decided in advance,” Anderson said. “That has got to be worth money.”

Anderson said local companies are going to be under public pressure to keep costs down.

“If you limit the number of people that get involved, prices go up,” Bridge said.

Stenberg said it’s not the role of government to support the unions.

The agreement itself has no requirement that union-only contractors can bid on city contracts, Olson said. Nonunion contractors would not have to pay into the health reimbursement arrangement if they have a health and welfare plan.

“My biggest concern is Frog; what have we hired him for?” Dalbec said. “… If we’re not going to listen to him, why do we have him sitting there? He’s telling us we should wait on this.”

Milroy said while the media was doing its job in pursing the story, he accused city administrators “making political hay” in the media before the council had “a fair chance to debate the issues” after Mayor Dave Ross and Jeff Vito, development and government affairs director, responded to Telegram questions concerning the proposal and labor issues on past city contracts.

Ross asked Milroy if it was the council’s intent to gag him from publicly discussing proposals the council may consider.

Milroy said that was not his intent.

“I am disappointed this was all played out so much in the press before we had a chance to sit down like we are tonight to have an honest and fair debate,” he said.

Councilor Bob Finsland said he was concern about the motion on the floor, which would have removed the proposal from discussion.

The council divided 7-3 to on a motion to receive and file. Finsland, Milroy, Olson, Anderson and Councilors Warren Bender, Chuck Hendry and Mick MacKenzie voted to keep the issue alive.

A motion to table the issue passed unanimously.


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