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Council Fires Volley in Living Wage War

By Jorge Casuso

Calling a living wage initiative filed by local businesses a "charade," the City Council early Wednesday morning directed staff to study the impacts of the ballot measure, which covers businesses with city contracts and subsidies and overrides any related action the council might take.

In a separate measure, the council also directed staff to draft an emergency ordinance "prohibiting any employer from retaliating in any way against employees who advocate a position for or against a living wage ordinance."

The later measure comes in the wake of the Jonathan Club's dismissal of two dozen dishwashers and housekeepers, many of whom had publicly supported a living wage ordinance being studied by the council that covers businesses in the city's thriving coastal zone.

"This is really an anti-living wage proposal," Mayor Ken Genser said of the ballot initiative filed by a group of businesses calling itself Santa Monicans for a Living Wage. "They're spending, spending and spending to fool the voters. The people of this city will see through this charade."

"I think this is a very real attempt to deceive," said Councilman Kevin McKeown. "There's a lot of money behind this, and people may be fooled. The residents of this city deserve to be fairly informed."

Staff is expected to "expeditiously" provide the council with a report estimating the number and class of workers covered by the proposed initiative, which must be signed by 9,000 voters by May 15 to qualify for the November ballot. Staff already was looking at a similar proposal, City Manager Susan McCarthy said.

"We can easily tell you how many contracts over the $25,000 level we have," McCarthy said. "We'll be looking at old patterns. We were looking at the impacts of that type of measure."

The measure, which closely mirrors Los Angeles County's law, requires employers who receive at least $25,000 in city contracts for services to pay their workers a living wage of at least $8.32 an hour with health benefits, or $9.46 without benefits. Some three dozen municipalities nationwide have adopted similar laws.

Opponents contend that the proposed ballot initiative, which can only be overridden at the ballot box, would cover few workers.

"This would only cover a very, very narrow slice of workers," Genser said. "It's a very restrictive law done in a way to preempt any living wage law done in this community."

The initiative would likely cover few, if any, of the 3,000 workers (many of them in hotels and restaurants) targeted by the proposal being studied by the council. Crafted by Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART), the proposed ordinance would require businesses along the coast with more than 50 employees to pay their workers at least $10.69-an-hour, which is double the minimum wage.

If approved by the council, SMART's proposal would make Santa Monica the nation's first city to require private businesses with no municipal subsidies or contracts to pay workers a living wage.

The council also directed staff to study the legal implications of the ballot measured sponsored by local businesses. But City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said state law restricts the depth of any legal analysis the city can conduct.

"The analysis that we do is not the legal analysis you're used to," Moutrie said. "It wouldn't go through the initiative sentence by sentence."

Moutrie also warned that a measure prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers who oppose or support the living wage would be difficult to craft.

"We need to think about it," Moutrie said. "A law that prohibits conduct based on motive is more difficult to enforce than laws that cover something that is clear to the eye."

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