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Officials Forge Ahead with Long-Stalled City Hall Solar Plan

San Francisco City Hall
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San Francisco City Hall
San Francisco will call for bids, despite a persistent labor dispute and lack of guidance from the state

San Francisco will call for bids from solar panel companies interested in blanketing the roofs of City Hall and nearby Davies Symphony Hall with photovoltaic cells, officials announced during a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission hearing Tuesday.

The high-profile green project was first touted more than a year ago, but plans to begin laying panels stalled last summer when a spat among unions over what kinds of tradespeople are entitled to perform solar work escalated into angry confrontations at a city work site.

Mayor Edwin M. Lee and members of his administration had hoped that a recent ruling by the California Department of Industrial Relations defining photovoltaic installation as a profession employing a wide variety of trades would end the dispute.

But San Francisco Public Utilities Commission staff said Tuesday they had learned during a meeting with state officials earlier that day that it could take two more years before the state rules about which trades should perform which tasks on solar panel projects and how much they should be paid.

The SFPUC officials told commissioners they were unwilling to wait two more years before moving forward with the project, and will instead seek bidders within a month.

The work will be undertaken without state guidance on the types of workers who should be employed, and city labor officials will instead attempt to arbitrate an agreement among various unions. The work will be guided by a new local-hiring law, which could help place laborers from low-income neighborhoods on the project and prevent confrontations between their representatives and electrical workers.

The officials also announced they will allow stalled solar panel installation contracts to move forward on public buildings in Chinatown and Potrero Hill.

SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington said there was no benefit in waiting any longer to move forward with the projects. “Nothing on the horizon seems to be worth waiting for,” Harrington said.

The projects are expected to see roofers, electrical workers and laborers fighting each other for jobs.

“We absolutely expect there will be issues between different unions who believe they have jurisdiction over the work,” SFPUC power official Barbara Hale said during the hearing at City Hall.

Former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office ruled last summer that photovoltaic installation is a job for electrical workers, siding with a powerful electricians’ union and sparking angry protests from lower-income laborers that shut down a city-backed solar panel construction site in the Sunset neighborhood.

That ruling was contradicted by the recent state ruling, according to Supervisor Eric Mar and others.

Mar said he is considering introducing legislation to prevent last summer's city ruling from serving as a precedent on upcoming solar panel projects, in an effort to allow roofers and laborers to share work with electricians on City Hall and other buildings.

“I applaud the California Department of Industrial Relations’ decision that solar panel installation is ‘clearly a multi-craft occupation,’” Mar said in an email.

Mar had planned to introduce the legislation Tuesday, but said he postponed that plan because he is "still working with stakeholders groups, Mayor Lee and OLSE [the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement] on how to move forward with city solar installations."

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