From left: Bill Evans, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Tom Lemmon. / Photos by Sam Hodgson, Megan Wood and Adriana Heldiz

A prominent San Diego hotelier has accused Mayor Kevin Faulconer of giving a labor leader veto power over developments to ensure that an expansion of the Convention Center, one of his top priorities, didn’t encounter union opposition.

Bill Evans, whose family hotel business operates the Bahia Resort on Mission Bay and others, filed a lawsuit in late 2018 alleging that unions representing hotel and construction workers were holding lease agreements on public lands hostage. Much of the complaint was aimed at labor-friendly members of the City Council who had encouraged Evans, he said, to play nice with the unions, otherwise his projects wouldn’t get a hearing.

U.S. District Judge William Hayes dismissed the case in January, but acknowledged Evans’ larger point. Hayes didn’t disagree that the unions had been applying political pressure to further their own ends, but he said those actions appeared to fall within the bounds of constitutionally protected speech.

Late last week, Evans asked the court to reconsider. In new court filings, he argued that Hayes should reopen the case and consider additional evidence, court precedent and examples of projects that couldn’t get off the ground without labor support.

In those new filings, Evans drags Faulconer into the case by arguing that the mayor was so desperate to fulfill a campaign pledge to expand the Convention Center that in 2017 he struck a deal with Tom Lemmon, the business manager for the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades, in exchange for Lemmon’s support.

“This agreement has been carried out by … slow rolling and in some cases blocking the docketing of non-union projects,” Evans argues in the filing. “This has the effect of denying non-union owners and developers meaningful access to those governing bodies.”

The City Council president has the final say over what’s docketed for discussion, but as the city’s top executive, Faulconer directs the staff who review projects and help get them ready for public meetings.

A spokesperson for Faulconer declined to comment, as did Lemmon.

In a statement, though, Steve Coopersmith, an attorney for the Building Trades, said Evans is attempting to undo the court’s “well-reasoned, thoughtful opinion” by adding “claims to the pile of allegations the Court has already shut down definitively.” The latest version of Evans’ complaint “is filled with dramatic, over-the-top allegations, like a ‘secret agreement’ between labor and Mayor Faulconer. It is unfortunate that Evans was not able to accept the Court’s decision, and in its desperation has now tried to drag others through the mud in its anti-union tirade.”

Evans did not provide any hard proof of his claim in court filings, and one of his attorneys told VOSD that they look forward to fleshing it out through the legal process.

Coopersmith said nothing Evans has laid out in his new complaint should change the court’s complete rejection of his legal theories.

Faulconer will be termed out at the end of 2020 and for years has been rumored to be eyeing higher office. Last month, L.A. Times columnist George Skelton dubbed Faulconer — a moderate conservative who supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage and a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the United States illegally — the GOP’s best and only hope to regain ground in California.

Evans’ lawsuit is likely to give ammunition to any Republican who challenges Faulconer from the right.

In his original complaint, Evans argued that San Diego unions had a long history of raising sham environmental challenges against non-union projects to delay and stop those developments from going forward. The labor leaders would then back down after a hotel owner or developer gave them what they wanted — meaning a guarantee to employ union workers on the construction site and stay neutralize in unionizing efforts inside the hotel thereafter, Evans contended. Labor leaders disputed these claims to VOSD and said their environmental concerns were legitimate.

Evans has wanted to expand the Bahia Resort for years, but labor leaders have joined with a community group to challenge the proposal, pointing primarily to the closure of a public access road on Mission Bay that paddlers and other beachgoers rely on. Former City Council President Myrtle Cole, Evans said, had refused to docket the Bahia public lease agreement because the unions had given her money to “win this thing.”

Evans said he then turned to Faulconer for help, but it went nowhere.

Faulconer would not have been the first Republican mayor to recognize San Diego’s shifting politics and adjust his strategy.

When a Convention Center expansion was proposed in 2012, both the hotel and construction workers unions put up roadblocks. They argued the plan would reduce parking and increase traffic, make the city a less desirable place to live and work and restrict growth while making significant demands on public infrastructure.

A settlement was later reached. The city agreed to add certain environmental assessments to the project in exchange for the unions dropping their legal challenges and complaints. Behind closed doors, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders agreed to appoint a labor-friendly person to the Convention Center board.

The only major Republican candidate in the race to replace Faulconer is making labor influence at City Hall a campaign issue. At a meeting of GOP activists recently, City Councilman Scott Sherman promised that if elected mayor, he’d seek to roll back wage standards for subsidized housing projects and renegotiate contracts with municipal unions.

He told VOSD’s Andrew Keatts that he was disappointed Faulconer hadn’t harnessed the power of the mayor’s office to challenge unions more directly.

“He should be using more of the bully pulpit to talk about union control, some of the decisions getting made because of special interests and not what’s in the best interests of the city, he needs to get more out on that, and be more out front because as mayor, you have to take on controversial items,” he said.

Faulconer has taken a different approach in more recent years. A March ballot measure that he’s championing would increase hotel taxes to fund a Convention Center expansion as well as homeless initiatives and road repairs. It’s supported by both business and labor groups.

Aimee Faucett, the mayor’s chief of staff, has noted in the past that the mayor has been willing to partner with unions on important initiatives.

“The mayor does have a track record of working with different groups from labor to business to decline-to-state to Republicans,” Faucett said in 2018 after city voters handed Democrats major wins that gave them a veto-proof majority on the City Council. “We just need to continue to listen, have relationships and bring things forward. At the end of the day, we agree on more than we disagree on.”

Lisa Halverstadt contributed to this report.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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