By JESSICA MESZAROS
Thunderstorms and heavy rain outside matched the tone inside the O’Fallon Municipal Centre during the June 25 City Council meeting.
On the agenda was a proposed vote on the use of a project labor agreement (PLA) for the construction of a new $28 million justice center for the city. The agenda did not include a public hearing on that topic; however, that fact did not prevent those assembled from speaking their minds. Heated confrontations and several interruptions during citizens’ comments resulted in O’Fallon Mayor Bill Hennessey threatening to shut down citizens’ comments and clear the chambers.
After many comments from the citizens and councilmembers, the council passed the PLA with a vote of 8 to 2. Councilmember Jim Pepper (Ward 2) and Councilmember Dave Hinman (Ward 1) were opposed. Hinman said his vote was representative of the Ward 1 residents he had spoken with regarding the PLA.
“In this instance, the residents of Ward 1 as a majority have said no,” Hinman said. “We represent our residents, and that’s how I’m going to vote for it this evening.”
Approximately 30 O’Fallon citizens expressed opinions on the ordinance, equal parts positive and negative.
“This project is going to be built in my backyard,” O’Fallon resident Brian Graff said. “I believe that signing a PLA agreement is going to afford us the best product that we can get for residents, because that’s ultimately what we want.”
Prior to the vote, some of the councilmembers acknowledged the polarizing nature of the bill.
“I appreciate everybody, no matter what side of the issue you’re on,” Councilmember John Haman (Ward 3) said. He cited trickle-down economics while discussing how the PLA would impact the city of O’Fallon. “If we use local labor for this, the economic turmoil will trickle down to our people, to our businesses, to our coffee shops, and back up again, for expansion, back down, back down, back down and back up again. It keeps everyone working, union or nonunion. For that reason and that reason alone, I am supporting this PLA.”
At the end of a stressful night, a single goal for O’Fallon remained.
“I don’t care if a general contractor is union or nonunion. My goal is to build a police station,” Haman said. “We want to build the best one we can.”
However, on June 26, one day after the council approved the PLA, O’Fallon resident Caleb Hunter filed a referendum petition to repeal it. The petition would need signatures equaling 7 percent of the votes from the last O’Fallon mayoral election, or approximately 430 signatures. If the necessary signatures were to be gathered, the PLA ordinance would appear on a ballot in the future for voters to accept or reject. However, if the city needed to hold a special election for voters to decide on the issue, the number of signatures would have to equal 14 percent of the votes cast for the last mayoral election. The referendum was signed by Caleb Hunter, Chris Hunter and Joseph Pallardy.
“I don’t think the city should be in the position to pick winners and losers based on affiliation,” Caleb Hunter, of Extreme Electrical, said. “I do believe it’s appropriate for the council to have guidelines, but as a taxpayer in O’Fallon, I can’t even bid on the project.”
The referendum has attracted the attention of many in Missouri.
“I believe it’s the citizens’ right to petition their government to fix problems, and I commend the Hunters for taking that action,” Missouri Sen. Bob Onder (R-District 2) said. Onder had appeared at several O’Fallon meetings to speak against the PLA, and cited the agreement as “discriminatory against non-union contractors.”
“Hopefully this will go to a vote of the people and be rejected. I really doubt that the residents of O’Fallon would have voted on the referendum to build the justice center anyway if they knew it was going to be turned into a sweetheart deal,” Onder said.
Councilmember Bob Howell (Ward 4) said the referendum was a right of the citizens.
“Basically, every citizen has the right to pursue what they want, and I have no problem with that as long as (the process) is done legally,” Howell said.
At the June 25 meeting, the council also passed a resolution allowing the city to contract with Wilson Estes Police Architects of Kansas City to provide the architectural services, design services, and related construction period services for the proposed police station and courthouse. The city will pay the company $1,871,674.37 out of the $28 million budget for the police station.