Balcomy jpg

After Berkeley, a legislative win and loss

Balcomy jpg

Balcomy jpg

California State Senator Lori Hancock and her husband, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates

By Ray O’Hanlon

Berkeley City Council has voted for measures that should ensure no repeat of last month’s tragic balcony collapse that killed six students (five Irish and one Irish American) and injured seven others.

But California state lawmakers have rejected a bill that would have increased oversight of contractors throughout the state in the wake of the tragedy.

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Both votes came on Tuesday.

In Berkeley, the council voted for new regulations that will mean apartment building balconies being inspected every three years.

And according to reports in the Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle newspapers, the council also voted to require that new balconies be made of corrosion-resistant material and be ventilated to prevent a buildup of moisture.

After the June 16 fatal balcony collapse it was discovered that wooden joists attaching the balcony to the apartment building had rotted.

According to the Sacramento Bee, the Berkeley council's vote came after it heard from an attorney for one of the victims' families.

"It would be an amazing compounding of this tragedy not to do something now and not to ensure that similarly designed and constructed buildings are not being inspected," attorney Eustace de Saint Phalle said.

Stated the report: “He had called for yearly inspections. City staff had recommended inspections every five years. Some building group representatives had urged the council to hold off on the vote for further study.”

Evan as Berkeley City Council was moving to implement stricter codes, California state lawmakers were voting down a bill that would have required construction companies to disclose felony convictions and settlements to state regulators over construction defects.

SB 465, authored by Democratic Senators Loni Hancock and Jerry Hill, did not pass out of the Assembly Business and Professions Committee. But it became what is called a “two-year bill” which allows backers more time to refine their proposal.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that SB 465 “may be revived if support is found.”

Hancock and Hill said they will continue to work on legislation to address one of the biggest concerns raised from the tragedy: how a state board was left in the dark about multimillion-dollar legal settlements involving the contractors they license, the report said.

Many senate committee members supported the bill's intent, but worried about requiring a state agency to collect settlement data without understanding how it would be used in enforcement, the Bee reported.

Segue Construction, the company that built the Berkeley apartment, has paid more than $26.5 million in the past three years to settle lawsuits related to balcony failures. The Contractors State License Board was unaware of the cases because California state law does not require the company to report them to the board.

Reported the Chronicle: The bill fell one vote short of the majority needed to pass the 14-member Assembly business and professions committee. It was defeated in a party-line 7-3 vote, with Republicans voting against it. Four members did not vote.

Hill and Hancock had agreed to amend the bill to allow the state licensing board to determine whether reporting settlements and felonies was the right course, or if other oversight was needed. The lawmakers unsuccessfully asked their colleagues to pass the bill while they continued to work on it.

“This, in my view, is what shakes people’s confidence in government,” Hancock said after the vote.

“I’m very, very disappointed,” she said.

Prior to the vote, Hancock had released a statement arguing to approval of SB 465.

“I believe that the Berkeley balcony collapse was preventable had there been more accountability and oversight. What we have discovered since this tragedy occurred is that the builder of this building has had a history of sub-standard work, which the state oversight board was never aware of.

“This bill requires contractors to report legal settlements to the state board. This is not a new policy. We require this of engineers. We should require the same of the people that build our homes, apartments and other buildings,” she said.

For Hancock, there was at least a silver lining in the Berkeley City Council vote. Her husband, Tom Bates, is Mayor of Berkeley.

Both Hancock and Bates take a strong interest in Ireland and the North peace process and have visited Belfast.

Meanwhile, some of the seven injured students are making good progress, but a couple of the survivors are battling especially serious injuries.

It is expected that the families of the dead and injured will be initiating civil lawsuits.