Letter in San Diego Union-Tribune Reveals Insider Perspective on How Union Official Sabotaged City of Santee’s Local Charter Authority

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A resident of the City of Santee – a man named Bill Howell (whom I do not know) – had the guts to write a letter to the editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune about how San Diego County’s top construction union official Tom Lemmon used “bullying” (in 2008) to intimidate and manipulate the decisions of the Citizens’ Charter Advisory Committee of the City of Santee. Published on Sunday, May 19, the letter stated the following:

…Mr. Lemmon, whom if you have never seen him, cuts an imposing figure. He is a large person and without much imagination, the picture of a “union boss.”

When Mr. Till, our city manager, opened the discussion on PLA-related ordinances for our charter and mentioned that we could advise not to have PLA, Mr. Lemmon immediately and in a forceful voice said, “If you pass that, we’ll sue you!” Just like that.

At that time, he and his organization were locked in a lawsuit against the city of Vista because it passed a charter without the PLA provision.

I am not used to being intimidated, having spent 30 years as a policeman, yet I felt a quiver in my gut.

After a very quick deliberation, in my opinion, the committee voted not to recommend an ordinance prohibiting the PLA.

See the letter to the editor “Prop. A Would Give City Some Muscle” in the May 19, 2012 San Diego Union-Tribune.

I was not aware of that exchange, but I will note that the union intimidation of the Citizens’ Charter Advisory Committee of the City of Santee (and the Santee City Council) was not limited to the city’s proposed policy on whether or not to prohibit any city requirement for contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements with unions. In fact, the reference in the Bill Howell letter to a union lawsuit against the City of Vista (State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, AFL-CIO v. City of Vista) alludes to another right of charter cities detested by unions: the authority to establish their own policies for government-mandated construction wage rates (“prevailing wages”) on purely municipal projects.

While most city councils of charter cities in San Diego County have the freedom to choose their own contractor wage rates for purely municipal projects, the Santee City Council presented a proposed charter to voters in November 2008 with this weak, compromised provision:

Section 302. Prevailing Wages.

The City shall require the payment of prevailing wages on City public works projects in the same manner as is required of general law cities in the State of California; provided, however, that the City Council may, by a resolution or ordinance adopted by a four-fifths (4/5) vote of the City Council, increase or decrease the minimum thresholds which trigger the requirement to pay prevailing wages for individual projects, categories of projects or all City public works projects.

In other words, the city is stuck requiring its construction contractors to abide by the costly, burdensome prevailing wage laws of the State of California, and the phony, inflated rates set by the Department of Industrial Relations (using collective bargaining agreements), unless four of the five city council members vote to “increase or decrease the minimum thresholds.”

This language does not indicate whether or not the city council can exempt certain types of construction, set a percentage of the state prevailing wage as the local prevailing wage, conduct its own surveys to determine local wage rates, permanently exempt volunteers, or exclude payments incorporated in the “Other” category of prevailing wage rates that are not related to employee compensation. Local control is limited and inflexible.

What’s the point of being a charter city if the provisions in the charter deprive the city of the local governing authority it sought in the first place? Obviously the presence of the head of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council on the Citizens’ Charter Advisory Committee greatly compromised the effectiveness of the charter presented to voters in the City of Santee.

By the way, voters approved the charter as Proposition P in November 2008 on a vote of 14,465 votes in favor and 6,371 votes in opposition – an easy 69% victory.

And the Santee language on prevailing wage was later adopted into the charter approved by voters for the City of El Centro (in Imperial County, to the east of San Diego, within the territory of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council).


  1. Eric Christen says:

    Great piece Kevin. I have had numerous chances to meet Tom and find him to be typical union boss though not a thug. His mindset is that of someone stuck in the 1930’s trying mightily to hold on to a world long since passed (thank God!)

    Keep up the good work and watch to see how badly Tom and the rest of the union bosses in San Diego get beat in the Prop A battle coming to voters in that city June 5. It will be one for the record books!

  2. […] Letter in San Diego Union-Tribune Reveals Insider Perspective on How Union Official Sabotaged City o… Category: Construction Labor Issues, Prevailing Wage / Tags: California Supreme Court, Charter Cities, City of Vista v. State Building Trades Council, Prevailing Wage, State Building and Construction Trades Council of California […]