Tensions spill over as City Council finalizes minimum wage hike

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The Sonoma City Council on Monday finalized its ordinance raising the city minimum wage to $16 for all workers by 2023 – placing Sonoma at an accelerated pace beyond the state’s current series of annual wage hikes.

Sonoma will begin ratcheting up its minimum wage on Jan. 1 of 2020, with businesses with fewer than 25 employees paying a minimum of $12.50 an hour and larger businesses paying $13.50 an hour. Following a series of yearly increases, the city wage will settle on Jan. 1 of 2023 at $16 for smaller businesses and $17 for larger businesses – both rates above the state’s planned $15 wage that year.

The council voted 3-2 to approve the minimum wage schedule, with members David Cook and Madolyn Agrimonti against.

Mayor Amy Harrington, who first initiated the council’s consideration of a higher wage more than a year ago, described herself as “proud” to see it come to fruition.

“A lot of hard work has gone into (the ordinance),” said Harrington. “And to the poorest people working in our town – I am delighted that they will be receiving a raise.”

After several council meetings’ worth of fine-tuning, the end product changed little from its last incarnation at the May 20 council meeting, though council members decided to determine future cost of living adjustments at a later date.

Spokespeople from the business community, some of whom have voiced trepidation over the effect the hikes will have on operations, and labor group North Bay Jobs with Justice, which has advocated for a wage hike to $15 by 2020, rounded out the majority of attendees at the June 3 meeting in Council Chambers.

If the content of the ordinance was static, the same couldn’t be said for the content of the evening’s dialogue – some of which was more heated than the polite exchanges of earlier meetings on the wage.

North Bay Jobs with Justice supporters held up placards throughout the meeting displaying names of local businesses and the hourly rate given their lowest paid employees: “Jack in the Box – $12.50”; “Parkpoint Health Club – $12.50”; “Carneros Hotel Busser/Washer – $12”; “the Girl & the Fig busser – $12”; “Hopmonk dishwasher – $13,” among others.

Several Sonoma restaurant owners have for weeks lobbied city officials to consider the viability of carving out an exemption to the ordinance for service employees whose wages from tips often bring their total income up to well-above the minimum wage. Girl & the Fig owner Sondra Bernstein in May launched a change.org petition on behalf of a group calling itself Concerned Restaurants of Sonoma in an effort to demonstrate community support for such a carve out for servers, bussers, hostesses, food runners and bartenders. Bernstein told the council that the petition had more than 1,100 signatures.

“I think these are people that are supporting us in this regard know that we are small businesses and we understand how our businesses run,” said Bernstein. “They trust us enough to make good decisions about our personal businesses.”

Valley resident Mario Castillo described the so-called tip carve out as employers “stealing tips and adding it to their salary.”

“It makes me wonder if it’s true the owners of restaurants and hotels and places that pay less than $15 an hour are so caring, so attentive to their workers – why fight it so much?” Castillo asked rhetorically. “Honestly, just pay them what’s fair and what’s right.”

City Attorney Jeff Walter addressed the concept of such an exemption for tipped employees at the council’s May 20 meeting, describing it as “penalizing tipped employees,” and predicting that type of exemption would likely result in a lawsuit.

But Girl & the Fig co-owner John Toulze said on Monday he thought there was still room to explore the tip exemption.

“What we feel is the council has broader discretion than they know and we also feel the council doesn’t really have as strong of ideas as we would like to know what they can and can’t do,” said Toulze. “We may not have all the answers here, but it’s clear neither does the council.”

Councilmember Logan Harvey later described the idea of a tip carve out as potentially “a big mess,” with so many service industry workers receiving varying amounts of tips it would be impossible for the city to monitor and enforce who is and who isn’t rightfully receiving the minimum wage.

“When we create loopholes, we create systems that can be abused,” said Harvey, adding that one solution available to business owners is to allow their employees to unionize and collectively negotiate a lower base wage.

Councilmember Rachel Hundley put the kibosh on any hope of tip carve out when she said that even if it was legal, she wouldn’t support it. “There are people in this town whom this system has benefited greatly, but there are far more people in town to whom this same system is not benefiting very well.”

Said Hundley: “The biggest goal of all is making systemic changes.”

Councilmember Agrimonti, who had previously supported the ordinance, tried to explain her change of heart.

“I have voted yes for this and I’m glad that we got to this point, but I still think there’s something that isn’t working in this ordinance,” said Agrimonti. “And you know what the good news is? I believe you have the majority of this council to support it, so what I say is really irrelevant.”

Added Agrimonti: “I think it’s going to pass, and I think that’s great.”

But the evening’s most tempestuous moment came during an exchange between Cook and Harrington, when the Mayor questioned her council colleague’s motives for voting against the wage increase.

Cook, in explaining his multiple votes against a minimum wage ordinance, said he was, in fact, in favor of raising the wage, but said, “I think we’re doing a big disservice by moving so fast.” Cook called for postponing the vote “possibly another two months” in order to engage in more discussions. He said the community divide over the issue “breaks my heart.”

But Harrington said Cook, who is running for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors in 2020, was being disingenuous in claiming to support raising the minimum wage, while continuously voting against it.

“I recognize that taking political votes is difficult and it is much easier to continue things ad infinitum until the council changes or there’s an election or some other emergency happens where we can’t move on it,” Harrington said. “I think in Councilmember Cook’s own words, previously, that he served on a ‘do nothing’ council. That isn’t this council.”

Interrupted Cook: “I will not take a personal attack while I am here.”

Harrington continued: “I understand there is a request for delay (from Cook), but this has been going on for more than a year and a half. So as far as getting proposals together and asking for feedback and coming forward with real solutions -- not ‘I don’t want to do it and I have no other solution’ -- but real concrete solutions, we as a city council have put forward concrete proposals, real action. That’s what we have done.”

After Harrington finished, Cook decried the mayor’s “personal attacks” and threatened to “walk out that door” if it happened again.

Cook had mulled resigning from the council in November of 2018, before reconsidering at the behest of Agrimonti. At the time, he said he was “tired of the political games” and that he would “like to tell (the community) the full story. You won’t like it.”

Contact Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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