Legal head takes heat on local hiring

Written by on January 16, 2013 in Featured, Neighborhood News - No comments

Local hiring

After the city’s Law Department did not approve a local hiring bill, City Solicitor George Nilson faced heat last week from City Council President Jack Young, a sponsor of the bill.

City Council Bill 12-0159 says that contractors doing city projects for $300,000 or more must have 51 percent of their new hires be Baltimore residents. If a contractor is not hiring anyone new for the job, then there is no residency requirement. But if he is working on city roads and needs to hire specialists to install large pipes, for example, then 51 percent of those specialists must come from the city. If no one in the city has the skills or availability to do that job, then the requirement may be waived.

A contractor who intentionally failed to meet the local hiring requirement would be barred from city work for one year, and guilty of a misdemeanor.

The bill, which is still in committee and has not been voted on, also applies to any project in which the developer is receiving $5 million or more in assistance from the city. This assistance may include a low sale price for city-owned land; a loan from the city to be repaid by the future tax revenue that the development would bring in; other grants and loans from the city; and city-built infrastructure related to the development.

An example of a project meeting these conditions would be the Harbor Point development, which includes a bridge extension from the end of Central Ave. into Harbor Point. Under the current development plan, that $6 million bridge is being paid for through tax-increment financing.

The problem with the local hiring bill, according to the Law Department and Nilson, is that federal courts have struck down similar local-hiring laws in some other cities and states, citing a violation of the Privileges and Immunities clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against workers based on residence. Nilson said that local hiring laws are currently in place only in places that haven’t as of yet faced legal challenges.

Nilson addressed the City Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee at a public hearing on the bill last Thursday. He said that if the bill becomes a law, it will likely be challenged.

“Every bill that we introduce could face legal challenges, am I right?” Young, also present at the hearing, asked Nilson.

“I don’t care if someone challenges it and is going to lose,” Nilson replied, “but I’m not signing off on something that we would lose after two years of litigation.”

At last week’s hearing, Nilson noted that Young had been very upset by the Law Department’s Jan. 3 refusal to approve the bill for form and legal sufficiency.

“He seemed to be taken by surprise—which was quite a shock to me—by that conclusion,” said Nilson.

The Law Department subsequently drafted a supplementary response to the bill, dated Jan. 9, which makes some alternative suggestions for increasing local employment, including making job linkage and training programs; focusing the hiring preference on the income level or employment status—rather than residency—of new hires; structuring city contracts (when federal funds are involved) similarly to building contracts structured by the Baltimore Housing Authority; or amending the City Charter.

At the hearing last Thursday, Young sought input from two cities with local hiring laws in place, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Jonathan Arce of Brightline Defense Project, a nonprofit organization that helped implement the San Francisco local-hiring legislation, spoke via Skype.
Arce acknowledged that putting such legislation is difficult, “but these situations are far from impossible,” he said.

In San Francisco, Arce said, the mayor did not sign the legislation, “but two weeks later we got a new mayor, who said ‘I’m going to give this bill life as if I had signed it myself.’”

The conversation then shifted to the conflict between City Council President Young and City Solicitor Nilson—a mayoral appointee.

“With your new mayor, is the same city solicitor still there?” asked Young pointedly; Arce replied in the affirmative.

“From here, it sounded like the City Solicitor was opening the door to work with you,” said Arce.

Also present at the hearing were at least 20 members of the Baltimore chapter of the Laborers International Union of North America, all wearing orange hoodies.

Jermaine Jones, a spokesman for the union, testified in favor of the bill. He said that a local hiring law was a necessity—that good-faith efforts and on-the-books requirements that contractors first post their openings locally for seven day aren’t enough.

“I don’t want to say stigma…but there is a stigma,” said Jones. “Construction is one of those fields that’s not as progressive as it could be…Unless they have to hire local residents, more than likely, they won’t.”

Testifying on behalf of Ligon & Ligon, a Baltimore contractor, lobbyist Bruce Bereano said that “we very respectfully do not support this legislation.”

“We just want competent and talented workers, and we’ll take anyone who falls into that category,” Bereano said.

Peter Ligon noted that a single accident can taint a construction company to the point that general contractors won’t accept its bids.

“I’ve heard comments thrown around about finding ‘dependable’ people,” said Richie Armstrong of Community Churches United, a Baltimore group working with LiUNA members on the local hiring issue. “It’s very disrespectful to say that when these people are sitting right here,” he said, indicating the union members in the orange hoodies.

Young said that a work session on the bill, open to the public, will be held in early February.

by Erik Zygmont

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