The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors has been grappling with whether or not to apply a Project Labor Agreement to the new Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center, or MACC. While the issue didn’t exist before an October 19th meeting last year, the questions continue. Now approaching its fifth month of deliberation, Supervisors and stakeholders on both sides of the issue hope it can be resolved soon.

At the October 19, 2010 Board meeting, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas proposed the new policy. The immediate reaction to the proposal wasn’t resounding approval; it was questioning, uncertainty, and demands for more information. Because there has never before been a PLA implemented by Los Angeles County, the debate has been fierce and protracted.

“The objective [is] to make sure that we build a high-quality project and do so with the participation of a workforce that comes from the local community,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas in an interview on Monday.

But at the October 19th meeting, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky made it clear that he doesn’t think the issue is so cut and dry. “This is a little bit more complicated than it sounds,” he is reported as saying in transcripts from the meeting. “There are a lot of nuances here that make a big difference in terms of cost and delay.”

It’s those nuances that have proven tricky for the board and the county staff to negotiate. With an initial deadline of two weeks, the County’s CEO was to report back with answers to a variety of questions posed by the board. Included in the unknowns were the actual cost of negotiation and implementation, the delays that the project would endure, how the county would proceed, and how the community would benefit.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas believes the value of the PLA comes from its strong local hire requirement. “We are trying to pilot this because we want… small business opportunity, [and to] create an avenue in the trades for those who are currently seeking jobs.”

But as Supervisor Gloria Molina stated at the October 19th meeting, local hire is already a component of the MACC rebuilding project. “In the original (proposal), we had local hiring as a full component of the rebuilding,” she said.

However, Supervisor Ridely-Thomas thinks that the PLA is necessary to give the local hire ordinance some “teeth.”

I asked the Supervisor about local hire and other effects of PLAs, that proponents use to as reasons to implement the agreements. Specifically, I asked if similar results could be achieved through other means, such as a countywide ordinance.

“It very well could be an option, depending what’s in the ordinance,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas.

Palmdale, a Southern California city, implemented its own local hire ordinance in 2007, as a means to both support local businesses and increase local employment. That ordinance requires that local contractors have an opportunity to bid on a project, and gives extra weight to their bids. If a company is located outside of Palmdale, contractors are given a series of specific actions they must take in order to demonstrate a good-faith effort to meet the local hire quota. Among the steps that have to be taken are advertisements in local papers, attendance at local job fairs, and contact with local hiring halls.

Those steps, though less restrictive than terms often found in PLAs, were enough to keep Palmdale’s well-intentioned ordinance from receiving universal support.

“We would like the people to get jobs,” said Assemblyman Steve Knight who was on the City Council when the issue was heard. “But the issue with putting those kinds of restrictions, you limit job opportunities around or in the city itself… We might stifle some of what we could get from a bang for our buck.”

Eric Christen, the Executive Director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction (CCFEC), said that his organization recently submitted to the Board of Supervisors language for an ordinance that dealt directly with local hiring.

“[It] was based upon ordinances that half a dozen municipalities around the state have used for local hire,” said Christen. One of those municipalities that the CFEC focused on was Palmdale. “We submitted those two weeks ago,” he said. That means the language was submitted the week of March 15.

I also asked Supervisor Thomas whether or not similar local hire quotas and benefits objectives could be reached through clauses of a standard contract or requirements in an RFP.

While he seemed open to the idea, he said, “The question is with whom you negotiate.”

Local hire is only one part of the ultimate goal that Supervisor Ridley-Thomas has in mind.

“We elected to identify three objectives: namely local hire, small business expansion and development, and PLAs. We want them to be accomplished in tandem.”

The challenge is that the cost and delays associated with implementing the PLAs continue to mount.

“We are in delay mode right now pending the resolution of this issue, ” said David Howard, from LA County’s Public Works Department, at the December 14th meeting.

And that delay has lead to costs, which Mr. Howard explained. There is an interrelationship between the MACC and the in-patient Tower. But because those two were no longer proceeding on the same schedule, there would no longer be the same shared resources.

“The in-patient tower is moving ahead of (the MACC) now,” said Mr. Howard. “We had to shift some scope between the projects to keep that on schedule so there’s a cost for that. There are now extra costs because we have to extend the life of the project, there’s extra consultant services, et cetera.”

Meanwhile, Ray Vandermat, an attorney for the Los Angeles-Orange County Trades Council, presented evidence to justify the usefulness of a PLA. 

“The Building Trades Council has a Project Labor Agreement with Los Angeles Community College District… [for] work under a PLA,” said Mr. Vandermat at the December 14th Board of Supervisors meeting. “And for 39 projects that ranged in value from $80,000 to $45 million.”

Vandermat continued, “I think the L.A.C.C.D.’s experience has shown… there are actually cost savings to be had.”

However, the LACCD construction project was described in a six-part LA Times expose as a program where “Tens of millions of dollars have gone to waste because of poor planning, frivolous spending and shoddy workmanship.” And Author Michael Finnegan went on to describe the system in place as “unwieldy” and that thereby “dilutes accountability.”

“If I had put something in place in LACCD on $6 billion in work, and it had resulted in what had happened there, you’d be looking for my picture in a police lineup,” said Christen. “It is incomprehensible that current methods for doing business should be replaced by a way that is proven not to work, as it did at the LACCD.”

But Supervisor Ridley-Thomas believes that the problems LACCD faced won’t affect the County.

“We have an obligation to avoid those problems and we will,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “We’ll have better project management and oversight.”

“There is no better place to start [PLAs] than at the MLK project,” he continued. “I am very excited about the prospects of it being a promising one so it can be replicated.”