If the Nov. 23 special Imperial Irrigation District meeting was an indicator of things to come, contentious could be a word to describe future meetings of the new-look IID board.
Already especially convened to discuss a contentious topic in a project labor agreement that has been in the works for nearly a year, the four-hour debate on the topic was punctuated with a verbal joust of sorts between board chair Norma Sierra Galindo and incoming Division 2 Director JB Hamby.
The project labor agreement has been in negotiations by Galindo and outgoing Division 4 Director Erik Ortega, along with IID staff and an attorney hired to negotiate the agreement with local unions.
The issue is on the district board’s action agenda for its regular meeting at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 1.
A project labor agreement is a pre-hire collective-bargaining agreement with one or more labor groups that establishes employment conditions for specific construction projects. The district’s agreement in discussion is for a 10-year term that covers any construction projects estimated to cost more than $750,000.
Some during the discussion questioned why the informational item and the action item set to be voted on Dec. 1 were coming so soon when the agreement put in place lasts so long.
“The truth is there wasn’t anything to vote on until now,” Ortega said.
The current system is stacked against employees and their families, he said, adding that he would use his vote to improve the working people’s lives.
Some of meeting’s fireworks began once Hamby took to the dais to air his concerns on the issue and the race to make a decision.
Hamby said he is supportive of project labor agreements that improve and promote local hires and that control costs to prevent rate increases, but he added that he is opposed to the way this particular agreement is being handled.
“This agreement is billed to be in the best interest of the people of Imperial Valley,” he said. “On Nov. 3, over 7,000 of those individuals, ratepayers of El Centro, Heber, and Seeley, voted for me to serve as their IID director and to speak as their voice. On Dec. 4, I’ll be sworn in.
“I did want to rebut statements made by various groups that these last election results were determined in any way by backlash to the PLA,” he added. “That’s not what I experienced, and I don’t find that to be accurate. But I do want to state that I find it disrespectful to my voters and myself for this item to proceed three days before I am seated.
“Even worse is that meaningful study and input is being stifled,” Hamby said. “Last October, then-Director Galindo stated this whole issue was about choosing between the contractors’ special interests and the unions’ special interests. I disagree. The only special interest to this board should be for the public interest, which I don’t think is being fully observed.
“In 11 days I look forward to carrying out an agreement that works best for the Imperial Valley, not having a decade-long agreement forced upon me and passed only three days before I take seat,” he added. “An agreement that, at this point, contains no input on my part. My constituents deserve respect and I ask for the professional courtesy of my soon-to-be colleagues and align my participation of this agreement.”
Galindo responded to Hamby’s comments.
“It is not our understanding that whatever business is at hand must be put on hold in order for new board members to come in and participate,” she said. “It is our understanding and has been that you take over from the time that you take office.
“We mean absolutely no disrespect,” she added. “We acknowledge all of the barriers you have broken. We acknowledge you as the new kingmaker. We know that. This project, Mr. Hamby, has been in the works for one year. So, when you come on board you will be more than welcome to revisit this as well as other projects you have been scrutinizing, and as a board we will look at them all together.
“At no point in time any of the directors are attempting to do anything whatsoever without your input,” she said. “The reality is that you are not a seated board member yet, therefore you do not deserve the attention to these matters as they are being presented to us. Once you take your seat, you will have precedence over anything and everything as a board member. And we congratulate you for all the barriers you have broken. It is commendable. It’s commendable, but again, we are not disrespecting you. This is just not a part of your gig until you take your seat.”
Hamby replied that he is not asking for special attention.
“I just wanted it to be a professional courtesy for the 7,000 people who voted for me (to) elect me as their voice and their representative in 11 days to be able to have some input whatsoever rather than none at all especially for a lengthy agreement,” Hamby said. “I think that would be respectful not to myself but specifically to the residents who live in this one-fifth of the Valley. So that they can have an equal voice in participating in something that works best for the Imperial Valley.”
Galindo responded, “And you will, after you are sworn in. And thank you again and congratulations again for having broken all those barriers. We are very proud of you,” she said sarcastically.
In addition to Hamby, Calexico resident Javier Gonzalez is also slated to be sworn in this week as Ortega’s replacement.
Meanwhile, some on the IID board were concerned about the information not being available for contractors.
Outgoing Division 2 Director Bruce Kuhn said he was under the impression, and even told some people, that workshops were going to be done to spread the information to those interested.
However, when polled by Galindo on Nov. 23, the board decided not to have workshops.
“I just would have liked to see a workshop on this issue,” Kuhn said. “I understand the board has decided on this. They (contractors) were promised a workshop on this, and they aren’t getting one.
“… There could have been some suggestions made that perhaps could have been incorporated in it, and I don’t think we’re giving them a chance,” he added.
Kuhn also rallied against what he said are “scare tactics” that some have spread about this agreement costing the district more money and not allowing unions to bid. Whether a contractor is union-affiliated or not, they can bid on these projects.
“The PLA is an instrument,” Kuhn said. “Whether your union or not, you’re going to pay the same. … To just blanket say this thing is going to cost millions of dollars, it’s just bull****.”
Some in the public, including union workers and representatives, were in favor of the document proposed, but some others in the community were not in agreement.
El Centro farmer Paula Pangle cited the general manager who had said it was not a perfect document during her public comment.
“This is not a perfect document, and we should insist that this document is as close to perfect as possible,” she said.
Most jobs will be awarded to union workers who are outside Imperial County, she said. Many companies will be forced out of the bidding process.
That was countered by union representatives, some of whom said the agreement doesn’t stop anyone from bidding on projects.
Pangle added that she’s heard a dozen reasons why the agreement shouldn’t be voted for, but not enough reasons it should be voted for.
Galindo finished the meeting with another jab at Hamby.
“We all look forward to board member-elect Hamby to come on board and school us on professional courtesy and on protocols and everything, because we’ve never had anyone from Stanford come and teach us down here,” she said. “I think he’s going to be very instrumental in teaching us how to conduct ourselves in a manner that’s commensurate with what his expectations are. But until that happens, we will continue with our business as usual.”