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Law Lets Caltrans Contract With Outside Firms : Politics: The legislation, signed by Gov. Wilson at an Irvine surveying firm, is expected to be challenged in court.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson, in a special bill-signing ceremony Wednesday at an Orange County surveying company’s headquarters, gave Caltrans new authority to enter into contracts with highway design companies.

Saying that the measure will “improve roadways and protect jobs,” Wilson signed emergency legislation designed to overturn court findings that had prompted the California Department of Transportation in May to freeze $159 million worth of contracts with outside firms.

The law, which took effect immediately, also requires the agency to reinstate those consulting contracts.

The law is expected to be challenged in court by the Professional Engineers in California Government, the union that represents about 8,000 Caltrans employees who design state roads. The union asserts that the agency should hire more workers rather than retain consultants.

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The new law, actually a major amendment, is the latest salvo in a four-year battle that has pitted Caltrans and the private sector against the agency’s design staff. The union has won court orders blocking Caltrans’ efforts to send large amounts of work to outside firms.

Wilson, attacking the union that urged him Friday to veto the measure, said the only opposition to the bill came from “some state employees who are, frankly, a little greedy” and think that the public can wait for them to complete highway improvements.

Still, State Sen. Marian Bergeson, the Newport Beach Republican who sponsored the bill, said the measure has been one of the more contentious pieces of legislation she has handled.

The Caltrans freeze on outside contracts put hundreds of employees from nearly 600 firms out of work and threatened the jobs of a few thousand. It also threatened to bankrupt about 150 of those companies, all of which are small woman- and minority-owned firms that rely on Caltrans work.

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More than 100 architects, engineers and surveyors were on hand for the bill-signing ceremony in front of the headquarters of Coast Surveying Inc. in Irvine, a minority-owned firm that would have lost 15 contracts worth a total of $3 million had the freeze remained in effect.

Owner Ruel del Castillo said the law means that his staff of 40 can soon go back to work full time rather than subsist on only a few days of work a week.

Wade Weaver, who laid off 17 of his 22 employees at Western Land Concepts Inc. in Rancho Cucamonga, said he has already rehired two employees and hopes to bring back the rest soon.

Major design firms, too, praised the law as a way to help Caltrans get on track with a huge backlog of highway engineering work.

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“We can put out the work as fast as the state can give it to us,” said J.E. Van Dell, president of Van Dell and Associates Inc., an Irvine engineering firm.

The governor pointed out that thousands of idle construction workers will also benefit from revived Caltrans activity and that funding more projects should be no problem. “I’m not saying we have all the money we need (for highway improvements), but now we are able to spend all the money we have,” Wilson said.

While happy, some were not overly ecstatic.

“I would like to be excited, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Adriana Long, president of Tri-Star Surveying in Chino.

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She won’t have to wait long. Caltrans has to go back to court Oct. 15 to explain its plans to Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Eugene T. Gualco.

It was Gualco who ruled in May that Caltrans Director James W. van Loben Sels had violated state law and previous court orders in determining how much work should be given to outside contractors. The judge threatened the director with contempt if he continued his policies.

Van Loben Sels quickly froze all contracts and came out with a plan to phase out all contracts for non-specialty work by the end of the year.

Now, however, Van Loben Sels said he will begin immediately to re-evaluate the agency’s needs and issue a new directive that will allow for more contracts to go to private industry.

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“If he changes what he says he’s going to do, he’s going to have a problem,” said Bruce Blanning, executive assistant for the employees’ union. “Anything he does differently, he does at some risk.”

Blanning, who said the union will go to Gualco over any changes in contracting, said the main concern is not job security--employees haven’t faced layoffs--but “cost and safety and the public interest.”

The union asserts that its members do better work than the private sector and do it cheaper. Outside design companies contest the claims.

Though the controversy over contracting has been long-running, Wilson praised the bipartisan support for the legislation introduced by Bergeson and guided through the Assembly by Richard Katz (D-Panorama City), both of whom attended the ceremony.

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Katz chided the employees union for a failure in earlier negotiations between it and Caltrans. He said a number of other unions, particularly in the building trades, supported the legislation because it would mean more work available for their members.


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