Wednesday, July 21, 2010  03:53 AM

By Barbara Carmen

Faulty rules that Franklin County followed to hire contractors to build its courthouse, ballpark and dog shelter will be revised, Commissioner John O’Grady said.

Ohio’s top court rebuked the county commissioners in March for disqualifying bids from contractors who had settled petty wage disputes with the state. Commissioners, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled, overreached by branding those settlements with the Ohio Department of Commerce as violations of state prevailing-wage laws.

The court told commissioners to define precisely what constitutes a violation, and to consider many factors when weighing a contractor’s worthiness.

Commissioners now face paying the Painting Co., which lost a job at the Huntington Park baseball stadium. The county also had to reconsider an electrical contractor’s low bid for the new dog shelter, which it eventually accepted.

In April 2009, O’Grady convened a panel to review the county’s quality-contracting standards. But he put any changes on hold as the state Supreme Court considered the Painting Co.’s lawsuit.

“Our standards by and large have been very successful,” he said. “There are a couple things we’re going to address. We’ll do a better job of defining what a ‘violation’ means.”

O’Grady expects the panel to start meeting in August but with a few additional members. The Ohio Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, which had sued the county alongside the Painting Co., asked to participate. O’Grady said the group is welcome.

“That’s great. We’re going to have a seat at the table,” said Mary Tebeau, chapter president. “I’d like to create a policy that all groups believe in, that everyone is amenable to.”

Panel members, however, seem poised to clash. Tebeau called a proposed draft of changes to the county’s 18 original rules “alarming.” She said it appears even more stringent than the current wage standard, which repeatedly landed the county in court.

The draft is being circulated by a union lawyer.

Luther L. Liggett Jr., who represents the National Electrical Contractors Association, suggests in the draft that contractors be disqualified for jobs even if their prevailing-wage blunder was unintentional. He also proposes that settlements with the state count as violations.

“I think we get tripped up over the word violation,” Liggett said. “When the state makes a finding, that’s the trigger. I think it is clearer, not more stringent.”

Richard Hobbs, president of Associated General Contractors of Central Ohio, calls the county standards the “good housekeeping” seal for reputable contractors. He said the rules are important to protect.

“But what sounded great as they were crafted years ago are different in a practical world,” he said, noting that the standards have since been tested on big projects.

“The commissioners, they want to do this right,” Hobbs said. “You want fair and responsible guidelines in place. Tax money is too precious to be squandered.”

County Administrator Don L. Brown said the review panel will include the contractors associations, facilities experts from local universities, lawyers, labor leaders and county officials.

Brian Damant, manager for the electrical contractors’ central Ohio chapter, said the county must continue vigilance in screening bidders.

“In construction, you can’t just come in and say, ‘Here’s my little number.’ It’s not like looking at a tomato at the grocery and deciding it’s worth the price,” Damant said. “When I go into construction, I’m buying a promise. I’m looking at dirt. Can you deliver it per code, per specs? It’s how you treat employees.”

He suggests that the county review all 18 standards and remove the politics by prequalifying bidders and then opening the sealed bids to determine who will get the job.