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LOS ANGELES — Four lawyers arguing before the California Supreme Court on Wednesday earned their pay as they were hammered with questions that indicated the court’s justices want to steer clear of any expansive new rulings on wage laws. In the end, it appeared that the justices, led by Ming Chin, intend to hand down a narrow opinion that favors the city of Long Beach but falls short of a broader ruling that both sides had all but begged for during arguments. Attorney Scott Kronland, representing the State Building Trades Council as amicus curiae, told the justices that a narrow ruling would only consign workers, employers and contractors “to years of confusion about whether prevailing wages should be paid.[The court] can resolve the issue now, and I suggest it should.” The case turns on the question of whether the state’s 107 charter cities — including San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose — are governed by state wage laws. Under the state constitution, charter cities are self-governing. Yet, in the Long Beach case, Los Angeles’ Second District Court of Appeal had ruled that such cities aren’t exempt from state laws requiring the payment of currently prevailing wages for public works projects. Costa Mesa attorney M. Katherine Jenson, an amicus for the League of California Cities, said that is a “very critical issue” for charter cities, in that it could place a heavy financial burden on them in completing public projects — especially in tough economic times. Charter cities, Jenson argued, might have to cut back on funding in other areas — such as day care services and police patrols — to fund public projects. The money, she said, “has to come from somewhere.” In the case before the court on Wednesday, the city of Long Beach in 1998 provided a grant of $1.5 million to the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for a $10 million shelter to be built in Long Beach. The money was limited to pre-construction costs, such as design, insurance, attorneys fees and consultants. That was a critical distinction because state law requires public entities to pay workers the prevailing wage, rather than a lower salary, if any of the money goes toward actual construction. The state’s Department of Industrial Relations had investigated the situation and declared that the project was a public work and was not exempt from the prevailing wage law. The appeal court agreed, adding that the issue was one of statewide concern, which trumped the city’s argument that it was simply a municipal matter. During Wednesday’s arguments, lawyers for both sides said they wanted the court to decide the broader issue about whether the prevailing wage law was a matter of statewide concern. Justice Chin, however, started the arguments by suggesting that the court was strongly considering ruling in Long Beach’s favor by simply labeling the shelter funding as for pre-construction work only and, therefore, not subject to the prevailing wage law. He asked lawyers on both sides whether the court would need to address the broader issue if the court took that position. The general consensus by the lawyers was no, but they pleaded with the court to go further. Jenson, of the League of California Cities, said she’d be happy for Long Beach, but noted that such a ruling would leave the appellate court ruling intact and make charter cities subject to the prevailing wage law. “The court of appeal really threw a curve to us all,” she said. Long Beach City Attorney Robert Shannon said the victory for his city would be shallow. “If, in fact, the court says prevailing wages are a statewide concern,we have lost [the bigger issue].” Justice Chin wondered whether there was a way the court could decide the case for Long Beach narrowly, while still addressing the broader concerns. “Are you telling us you don’t want to win on the first issue?” he asked Shannon. Shannon said he wanted to win, but added that the high court could — even in dicta — “certainly indicate that under the clear law that’s existed since 1932, prevailing wages continue not to be an issue of statewide concern.” In his time at the podium, Los Angeles lawyer Anthony Mischel, representing the Department of Industrial Relations, argued that the court has historically given state agencies with expertise in particular areas great deference — a point that Justice Joyce Kennard raised earlier with Shannon. The department, he said, has decided that the animal shelter wasn’t exempt. “That interpretation,” he said, “should be given heightened deference.” A ruling in the case, City of Long Beach v. Department of Industrial Relations, S118450, is expected within 90 days.

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