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Battle over hiring locally continues in Somerville

Posted by Marcia Dick  November 21, 2011 10:05 AM

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Somerville officials are reviewing changes to a proposed ordinance that would require city-subsidized construction projects to consider hiring local workers after a federal appeals court struck down a similar law in Fall River last month because it was deemed discriminatory toward out-of-state workers.

Lawyers for the city say that without changes to the proposed local hiring ordinance, which is under consideration by the Board of Aldermen’s Legislative Matters Committee, Somerville could be liable for tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees if a similar court challenge were to succeed again.

The legal discussion preceded a Nov. 17 public hearing that drew a crowd of supporters, many of whom spoke strongly in favor of passing the ordinance who said that creative legal construction could solve some of the uncertainty.

If passed in its current form, the ordinance would require contractors who receive subsidies from Somerville to hire 30 percent local workers. Matthew Buckley, assistant city solicitor, last week told the legislative committee that a hard and fast minimum percentage, such as the one proposed, was the crux of why the court overturned the Fall River law.

‘‘Even if you want to chisel around the edges, the very thing you’re trying to accomplish is the very thing the court deemed unconstitutional,’’ Buckley said.

Local advocates and lawyers who turned out in force calling for the ordinance were undeterred, however, and presented a competing version that they say is narrowly tailored enough to avoid an expensive court battle. By exempting out-of-state workers and changing the mandatory minimum to merely a goal for hiring local laborers, the city can avoid a costly legal challenge, said Mark Stern, a Somerville labor lawyer.

‘‘The reality of this law is that all it would require is for construction companies to advertise in Somerville and give [residents] equal preference,’’ Stern said.

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