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In the days just before San Diego gave final approval to construction contracts on one of the biggest infrastructure projects in recent city history, Kelvin Barrios received an email.
Now a candidate for City Council, Barrios was then a staffer in Council President Georgette Gómez’s office. He was working on a plan to recapture wastewater and treat it at the Pure Water facility, which aims to provide a third of the city’s water by 2035.
Val Macedo, leader of Laborers Local Union 89, sent Barrios and Gómez a letter outlining issues he had with the contracts. Typically, those deals pit unions against contractors who oppose labor groups having guaranteed work on job sites. This time, Macedo found himself in a dispute with other union leaders over language in the deal that they supported and he did not.
“Local 89 strongly opposes two of these provisions that have nothing to do the performance of quality work on the Project, but … appear to favor certain construction unions over others,” Macedo wrote in the letter, obtained through a public records request. “These provisions are contrary to established law in the State of California.”
Macedo, whose union specializes in trench digging and other intensive physical work, wanted the Council to remove a requirement that any plumbers, pipefitters or electricians who work on the project hold specialty licenses. He also wanted to remove a requirement that certain workers on the project be supervised by graduates from an apprenticeship program.
“This requirement gets the City Council involved in an ongoing conflict between certain trades,” Macedo wrote.
Barrios, who worked on transportation policy and handled constituent complaints in City Heights for Gómez, was in the middle. He forwarded the email to Tom Lemmon, leader of another labor group, the San Diego County Building Trades Council, which, unlike Macedo, supported the apprenticeship requirement.
“Thank you, Kelvin,” Lemmon wrote. “I see you’ve been busy.”
Five days later, the Council approved the contract, including the provisions Macedo opposed, which the Building Trades and other union groups had previously negotiated with the mayor’s office.
“Just a quick thank you note regarding the passage of Pure Water today,” Lemmon wrote in an email to Barrios, with Gómez and Macedo copied. To “prevent any future confusion,” he wanted to clarify, he said, that his union’s governing body had formally approved the language included in the deal.
IBEW Local 569 also chalked it up as a huge win, issuing a statement that thanked the mayor, Gómez and other Council members.
In the end, Macedo lost. He was unable to spike the licensing requirement from the Pure Water contract.
It’s common in City Hall for an interest group to voice concerns with a major decision to a city official, and for that official to see if the city can sort out those issues. But within weeks of the city’s Pure Water decision, Barrios was on the Laborers’ payroll.
If Barrios and the Laborers had any contact at all regarding a job while he was working on the Pure Water deal, that would not be common, and could put Barrios in a bind with the city’s Ethics Commission, the body tasked with enforcing city ethics laws.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Barrios’ employment with the Laborers subjected him to a potential ethics violation, each of which carries up to a $5,000 fine.
When Barrios started with Laborers 89 in January 2019, he was still working for and being paid by Gómez’s office for a one-week period, although he didn’t disclose the overlap until earlier this month in an amended economic interest disclosure form after Voice of San Diego began asking him questions. The admission opened Barrios up to a potential violation of the city ethics ordinance, which prohibits officials from being paid by an outside entity while also on the city clock.
The Ethics Commission’s agenda on Sept. 10 included a closed session discussion with its legal counsel about opening a new investigation against an unidentified person.
Barrios’ decision in late 2018 to go work for Laborers 89 shortly after his work on Pure Water in Gómez’s office also puts him at risk of violating another city ethics law, this one prohibiting city officials from working on issues with potential future employers.
Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said she could not comment on any allegations against Barrios, because the potential violations fall within the commission’s purview.
Generally, though, she said, Council members and their staffs must recuse themselves from any decision involving a prospective employer, to ensure their motives are genuine and they’re working to advance the city’s interests alone.
“The ethics ordinance prohibits someone from working on any matter that involves the interests of someone from whom they’re seeking employment to prevent the appearance that they’re carrying water in their city job, in the hopes of getting something from a prospective employer,” she said.
The law requires city officials to recuse themselves the moment they connect with an employer about a potential opportunity.
“There is no specified time period in this particular section of the municipal code,” Fulhorst said. “The minute a city official begins seeking employment from someone, that official may no longer participate in decisions that involve the interests of that prospective employer, regardless of whether that employment is obtained, and regardless of when it is obtained.”
Tony Manolatos, a spokesman for the Barrios campaign, said the Laborers offered Barrios the job in late December, union leadership approved it on Dec. 21, 2018, and membership approved it the next day.
“The Laborers approached Kelvin and your suggestion that anything inappropriate happened beyond that is the latest example of Voice attempting to prop up a politically motivated and false narrative fueled by his opponent,” Manolatos wrote in an email. “Kelvin was hired as a director with Laborers Local 89, where he works on political and policy issues at all levels of government. He advocates for working families and local jobs.”
Last year, Barrios admitted to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission that he misspent funds during a school board campaign for which he was a consultant, and from his time as treasurer for the California Young Democrats Latino Caucus. Weeks later, his political opponent in the District 9 race, Sean Elo, filed a new complaint alleging that Barrios had also used money set aside for the San Diego County Young Democrats club on personal expenses.
Because the allegation fell outside the purview of the FPPC, the state kicked it down to the local level. In August, the Union-Tribune reported that the district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit was investigating Barrios.
Since then, Voice of San Diego has discovered that Barrios did not disclose income he earned before starting his City Hall job, forcing him to amend an economic interest disclosure, and did not disclose his overlapping public- and private-sector pay. The Union-Tribune this week also raised questions about a $21,000 personal loan to Barrios’ campaign. Manolatos told the newspaper that they wouldn’t discuss “fundraising strategy.”
How Barrios went from working on Pure Water — which had huge financial implications for local unions — to working for Laborers 89 is only the latest part of the candidate’s professional life to come under scrutiny.
In 2018, Barrios made $40,563 working for Gómez, according to the public pay database Transparent California, including $8,638 in non-salary pay and $8,171 in benefits. His gross salary for Laborers 89 in 2019 was $78,375, plus $8,435 for automobile disbursements, according to a federal filing by the union.
In other words, leaving Gómez’s office for Macedo’s shop increased Barrios’ total annual income by nearly $30,000.
In a statement, Gómez said she became aware of “Barrios’ employment with the Laborers when he notified me that he had accepted a position with them, in the latter half of December.” She has also said she didn’t know about the overlapping income, but that during the Pure Water project she assigned two other staffers, not Barrios, to be the leads.
Macedo didn’t return multiple requests for comment. Instead, lawyers for Laborers 89 asked Voice of San Diego to provide questions in writing, then declined to answer them.
“My client does not comment publicly on personnel matters or on strategy,” attorney Laurence Zakson wrote in an email.
During his final days in Gómez’s office, Barrios also appears to have laid the groundwork for aspects of his job with the Laborers. He forwarded a pair of emails from his city account to his private union account containing details about a development proposal at a Metropolitan Transit System property, and guidelines for a state grant.
The city’s ethics ordinance also prevents former city officials from taking special, insider knowledge with them to new jobs that could influence city decision-making. And it requires a one year “cooling off” period for anyone who was required to file economic interest disclosures, during which they cannot be paid to lobby San Diego officials.
Those rules don’t extend to other agencies, like MTS.
Barrios re-emerged exactly one month later, on Feb. 14, 2019, at an MTS board meeting, where Gómez served as chair. He would speak four times over the next five months. Each time, he advocated that the agency guarantee labor groups the work on its construction sites.
He wasn’t alone. Other union representatives made similar requests during those months.
In June, Gómez directed MTS staff to amend its policy to include union-friendly provisions in its development projects and policies going forward. At the July 25, 2019, meeting, the board voted 10-4 in favor of the change.
After that, Barrios mostly disappeared from the public record at MTS.