Friday, December 28, 2007
C.A. Revives City’s Mandate for Higher Wages for Hotel Workers
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Los Angeles city ordinance mandating higher minimum wages for employees of hotels near Los Angeles International Airport was properly enacted after an earlier version of the ordinance was blocked by a referendum petition, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Four, in an opinion by Justice Nora Manella, reversed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe’s order preventing the city from implementing the Airport Hospitality Enhancement Zone Ordinance enacted in February of this year.
The appellate ruling allows the city clerk to publish the ordinance once the decision becomes final. Barring another referendum petition, the enactment will take effect 31 days later according to the city charter.
Efforts by Mayor Antonio Villaragoisa and council members to improve wages for hotel workers culminated in November of last year in the enactment of the Hotel Worker Living Wage Ordinance. It would have mandated that hotels within a business improvement district abutting the airport and containing 50 or more guest rooms pay at least $9.39 per hour plus health benefits, or $10.64 per hour without health benefits.
The ordinance was opposed by hotel operators, taxpayers, and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, who submitted more than 100,000 signatures on a referendum petition, thus obligating the council to repeal the ordinance or submit it to a public vote, and suspending it in the interim. On Jan. 31 the council repealed the ordinance, but three weeks later it enacted the hospitality zone ordinance.
The new ordinance included the same wage mandates, but it also included provisions committing the city to spending money for street improvements, a study of how to attract new business, and training of workers for positions in hotels and restaurants.
It also provided for a phase-in of the minimum wage increases, and a procedure by which individual hotel operators could seek exemption on the ground that the requirements were overly burdensome or that its workers had agreed to waive the requirements in a collective bargaining agreement.
Several of those who had opposed the original ordinance sued to block the new enactment, contending that it was essentially the same as the measure against which the referendum petitions were filed. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs temporarily barred the city clerk from publishing the measure before the local affiliate of the labor union Unite Here, which had been allowed to intervene, filed a Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 170.6 challenge to Janavs.
The case was then sent to Judge David Yaffe, who held that the changes made in the second ordinance were “to a great extent illusory” and “not sufficient to materially change” those aspects of the first ordinance that were objected to by the petitioners. He agreed that the ordinance was invalid and barred its publication and implementation.
But Manella, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the differences between the two ordinances were substantial enough that the enactment of the hospitality zone ordinance did not violate the state constitutional rights of those who signed the petitions challenging the repealed wage ordinance.
‘All Essential Features’
The justice explained that under In re Stratham (1920) 45 Cal. App. 436, if a city repeals an ordinance that has been suspended by a referendum drive, “the council cannot enact another ordinance in all essential features like the repealed ordinance” but “may...deal further with the subject matter of the suspended ordinance, by enacting an ordinance essentially different from the ordinance protested against, avoiding, perhaps, the objections made to the first ordinance.”
The city must do this, the court cautioned, “not in bad faith, and not with intent to evade the effect of the referendum petition.”
Manella rejected the city’s contention that Stratham does not apply to charter cities, but agreed that the city had acted in good faith by enacting an “essentially different” ordinance after the first one was blocked.
In Stratham, she noted, the city first enacted and ordinance prohibiting taxicabs from soliciting patrons and in certain parts of the city, including areas near rail stations, without consent from nearby businesses. After that ordinance was blocked, the council adopted a new ordinance expanding the areas covered by the prohibition, eliminating an exemption that allowed some types of solicitation, and added new prohibitions.
The court upheld the second ordinance on the ground that it differed from the first “in substance relating to matters of importance.”
Manella concluded that the differences between the wage and hospitality zone ordinances were as significant as those between the two ordinances in Stratham.
The primary objections to the first ordinance, the jurist explained, were that it burdened airport-area hotel owners by requiring them to pay higher minimum wages, and that it would open the door to the imposition of similar requirements elsewhere.
In contrast, Manella noted, the hospitality zone ordinance grants hotel owners economic benefits to lessen the impact of the higher wage increases, delays the full impact of the benefits, and contains provisions by which the new requirements may be suspended if the city fails to complete a study of the ordinance’s economic effects.
The ordinance also prohibits the creation of similar zones elsewhere unless that area receives similar economic benefits, an economic impact study has been conducted, and public hearings have been held, the justice noted.
“We conclude that the provisions of the Zone Ordinance, taken as a whole, place it squarely within the Stratham court’s characterization of a proper second ordinance: the provisions of the Zone Ordinance, on their face, are substantial, relate to items of importance, and aim at ‘avoiding, perhaps, the objections made to the first ordinance,’” she wrote.
“...The provisions of the Zone Ordinance directly address the objections to the Wage Ordinance by providing guaranteed tangible economic benefits to the hotels that mitigate the financial burden of the wage requirements, while limiting imposition of such requirements in other areas of the City.”
A group representing hotel owners blasted the decision in a release:
“Today, the California Court of Appeals reversed 100 years of our state’s history by rendering the right of Referendum null and void. In what we believe was a decision not supported by fact or precedent, the Court gutted the ability of Californians to challenge the acts of their government through a vote of the people. This decision...will now allow local and state government to avoid a referendum election by making minor cosmetic changes to any law challenged by the voters.
“Every Californian should be shocked and saddened today as our state’s tradition of putting power in the hands of the people has been severely damaged. The Century Corridor Hotels, in considering our next steps, will continue our commitment to stand for the well being of our employees and the rights of the over 100,000 voters in our community who have stood with us against overreaching laws passed by the City of Los Angeles in support of special interests.”
The case is Rubalcava v. Martinez (Unite Here Local 11), 07 S.O.S. 7587.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company