In the space of 15 minutes Thursday, the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC) reversed four years of Democratic leadership, restoring former Taft appointee Richard Hickman Jr. as commission director and rescinding “responsible bidder” guidelines that were a centerpiece of the Strickland administration’s OSFC policy around project labor agreements (PLA) and other concessions to organized labor. 

Chief financial officer and former acting director Eric Bode gave his final executive report before the vote for Hickman, updating members on a major piece of the PLA dispute under former executive director and Strickland appointee Richard Murray. He said commission staff had prepared a three-page memo to bring to closure OSFC’s response to an Ohio Inspector General report critical of Murray’s purported bias toward union contractors. Bode said OSFC is proceeding with a new “Bidder Information Center” for better data tracking; increased monitoring of professional bid reviews through a new advisory committee of construction managers and architects; and a revised “issue reporting process” for a completed project’s post-occupancy evaluation.

Bode explained to Department of Administrative Services Director Robert Blair — one of three voting members including commission chair and state Budget Director Tim Keen and state Superintendent Deborah Delisle — that there is no “appeal process” as such for disqualified bids, and that each project is handled individually.

In a further reference to the labor battle under Murray, Bode said OSFC is preparing to re-bid the Ohio School for the Deaf/School for the Blind projects again, without PLAs.

In other cost-saving moves, he said commission staff had met with Sen. Tom Patton (R-Strongsville) on a possible bid process for school facility furnishings, similar to the bid process for school construction.

The commission moved forward on a long list of resolutions, beginning with the motion for Hickman’s appointment. The vote passed 2-0, as state Superintendent Deborah Delisle and her proxy were conspicuously absent from the meeting. Hickman will begin March 1 with a salary of no more than $115,000.

Bode was then commended for his service as interim director and chief financial officer in a separate resolution, as it was noted he would be leaving OSFC for other opportunities.

Keen and Blair then took up the larger issue of PLAs and prevailing wage, passing a resolution to rescind OSFC’s past Resolutions 07-98 and 07-16 under the Strickland administration:

“The commission believes open contracting for publicly funded construction projects aids in lowering the costs of such projects. … The commission now believes that many of the Model Responsible Bidder Workforce Standards contained in Exhibit A to Resolution 07-98 are redundant with current law, serve to restrict efficient procurement by increasing project costs or restricting competition by otherwise qualified contractors, or are not reasonably related to responsible bidder contracts.”

The resolution goes on to make the following declaration: “The commission will not approve any contracts that require the adoption of any agreements or specifications that attempt to impose any of the following requirements as a condition of submitting a bid or entering into a construction contract for or relating to a commission project: (a) identifies and requires any single source of employee referrals; (b) stipulates a specific source of insurance and benefits including health, life and disability insurance and retirement pensions; (c) controls or puts limits on staffing; (d) requires proprietary training programs or standards; (e) designates assignment of work; or (f) mandates wage levels, except in those instances of federal Davis-Bacon wage requirements.”

Resolution 11-16 does ensure that such restrictions will not limit local “inclusion” goals or moot Ohio’s Encouraging Diversity Growth and Equity (EDGE) Program.

Keen said the rollback of responsible bidder standards could be grandfathered in the case of PLAs and other wage and benefit concessions approved before Feb. 24, 2011, but might not be. 

“The commission retains discretion to review the terms of the 07-98 agreements and determine the applicability of this resolution.”

State Auditor David Yost supported the resolution in a letter to OSFC Thursday, although he included the following caveat:

“Available data and research offer conflicting views on the fiscal impacts of PLAs. The difficulty of controlling for the many variables in complex construction projects leads to more questions than empirical conclusions. However, by their very nature, PLAs distort the price-setting function of the markets. The tax-paying public deserves the benefit of the best price for the thing it seeks to purchase — a price set by a free, competitive market, unfettered by artificial constraints like PLAs.”

In response to a series of questions from nonvoting OSFC member Rep. Lou Gentile (D-Steubenville), Keen said the new resolution does not prevent districts from requesting certain “special conditions” in their contracts that do not conflict with the resolution as a whole.

Gentile tried to get to the perceived need for the labor rollback, asking how many school projects had actually participated in all or part of the responsible bidder standards. OSFC identified 13 PLAs and 15 projects with prevailing wage agreements. Gentile asked further whether the commission or its staff had done a comparison of “change orders” for previous and existing projects. Bode said a comprehensive analysis had not been performed. Finally, Gentile asked about rescinded OSHA requirements. Keen said they would not be affected by the resolution.

Gentile and Sen. Tom Sawyer (D-Akron), another nonvoting member of the commission, asked why training programs and skill standards should be eliminated. Keen said there was no barrier to training and standards generally, only specific programs cited in construction contracts.

Sawyer also returned to the larger question contemplated by Blair. “This would appear to be entirely up to the discretion of the commission on a case by case basis with no standards contemplated,” the senator said. As with bid appeals, Keen said contract terms and performance will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

The meeting concluded with public testimony from Toledo City Council member D. Michael Collins, who asked the commission to stop the city school board’s demolition of the former Libbey High School, which he described as a historical landmark with architectural merit. He said the school board had refused to release public records on the district’s OSFC timeline for the demolition, and told the commission a group of interested community members could raise the necessary funds to preserve the site within five years. He cited a Dec. 31, 2011 deadline for the OSFC project, however.

The commission agreed to grant a 30-day delay to give OSFC staff more time to study the matter.

Keen expanded on the vote for executive director after the meeting, saying Hickman was the clear choice for the job, having previously held the position. He also spoke to the rescinded responsible bidder policy.

“We hope to accomplish making our scarce dollars for school construction go as far as possible,” he said. “I think this resolution is one that should be viewed as being for free and open competition.”

He said the new resolution brings the commission full-circle to the contracting policy during Hickman’s first administration. “Essentially, we are returning to the view of the commission at that time.”