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Supervisors Back Efforts to Screen County Contractors

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Looking to shut out irresponsible contractors from Ventura County’s lucrative construction work, the Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to develop new guidelines for rating bidders--and to bar those who do not play by the rules.

But concerned that the county lacks the legal authority to institute such a system--even though the city of Los Angeles already has adopted one--supervisors also voted to back a bill by Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-San Rafael) that would clarify and expand their powers.

“Many contractors behave beautifully,” said Supervisor John Flynn, who proposed the new system along with Supervisor Susan Lacey. “It’s just a few that cause us problems.”

The action comes after some supervisors have expressed frustration about a local contractor who has repeatedly violated environmental regulations.

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Environmentalists have strongly criticized county officials for continuing to do business with Somis-based contractor Tom A. Staben despite his long record of illegal dumping and code violations. Those include building a lake in Moorpark without permits and digging up the ecologically sensitive Ventura River bottom to obtain raw materials for another project.

County public works officials have contended that they have had no choice but to award Staben more contracts. They claim that their hands are tied by a state law saying such work must go to the “lowest responsible bidder.” The law is vague on the definition of a responsible bidder, they say.

The Mazzoni bill would change that law, unequivocally allowing local governments to set up guidelines that contractors must obey. Those who violated one or more of the guidelines could be declared irresponsible, losing the right to bid on county projects.

Several contractors and representatives of contractor associations told the board they strongly supported the rating system, saying that questionable contractors were outbidding more reputable ones by skirting labor laws and cutting corners.

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“I’ve seen a lot of things in this county, and what the board is about to do is something we have been . . . complaining and whining about for a long time,” said Newbury Park contractor Larry Mosler. “We’d just like to have a level playing field.”

John Carter, director of the Center for Contract Compliance, said some contractors get around prevailing-wage laws by paying their workers a certain amount on paper, then forcing them to return a portion of their wages under the table.

“We find on a daily basis, violations, violations, violations of prevailing-wage laws,” he said, adding that such practices should not go unpunished.

But David Black of the Associated General Contractors of California told the board that contractors would be unfairly burdened by having to play by different rules in every municipality around the state. School districts already have the power to set their own guidelines for contractors, and that situation has led to major headaches, Black said.

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“The members’ experience with school districts has been less than satisfactory,” he said.

Flynn stressed, however, that the intent of the Mazzoni bill is to allow counties to set up uniform guidelines. And Lacey added that contractors would not be asked to divulge personal information, as has happened with some school districts.

“We have no intention of asking whether someone has been divorced,” Lacey said. “There have been some flaky things out there.”

The Los Angeles Board of Public Works voted earlier this year to launch a similar rating system for contractors, but it has yet to be implemented, Los Angeles officials said.

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Under the Los Angeles system, the responsibility of contractors is gauged using a set of nine criteria, including whether the contractor or any of its key employees or stakeholders have failed to provide “satisfactory performance” on previous contracts during the past five years. Violating worker compensation or environmental laws while carrying out a contract counts as unsatisfactory and could be grounds for being declared irresponsible.

Contractors declared unfit to carry out current and future Los Angeles contracts are informed that they cannot bid for work. They can request a hearing to dispute the findings.

Supervisor Judy Mikels said she supported launching a committee to begin drafting the guidelines for Ventura County construction contracts. But she cast the lone vote opposing the Mazzoni bill, saying it was poorly written.

“I cannot support another bad law,” Mikels said. “And the Mazzoni bill is a bad law.”

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