California Forum

How millions in lobbying watered down legislation after Berkeley balcony collapse

A crew works on the remaining wood of a Berkeley apartment building balcony that collapsed in June 2015, killing six college students and injuring seven others.
A crew works on the remaining wood of a Berkeley apartment building balcony that collapsed in June 2015, killing six college students and injuring seven others. Associated Press file

In a perfect world, after six young people died last year when a balcony collapsed at a Berkeley apartment, the Legislature would have passed legislation with teeth in an attempt to minimize the possibility of such a tragedy occurring again.

But in politics, the world is largely shaped by money and political clout.

In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a measure prompted by the collapse of a fifth-floor apartment balcony during a birthday party on June 16, 2015. He stated that Senate Bill 465 was “an important step, though, toward preventing another tragedy.”

The final bill was a relatively small step, though, once the legislation, authored by Sens. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, had been pared down by California’s building industry.

In the 2015-16 legislative session, the building industry spent more than $3 million lobbying on measures, including Hill’s bill, and opposed a requirement that licensees notify the Contractors State License Board within 90 days of settling a claim of alleged construction-related misconduct.

“The requirements in the bill that the CSLB gather information on construction defect case results will not provide the board with leads that have any significant chance of identifying bad actors. Instead, it will only result in a waste of staff time and resources,” the California Building Industry Association, the Associated General Contractors and other building groups argued in a letter to the Legislature.

None of this needed to happen.

one of seven Irish young people injured in the collapse

Interestingly, the reporting requirements that the building industry fought are already in effect for some of the state’s most influential licensed professions, including architects, doctors, engineers and accountants.

Had the reporting requirement Hill sought been in effect, the company that built the Berkeley apartment – with its $26.5 million in recent defect settlements – would have registered on the radar of the contractors’ board. As it was, the board learned of the record of Segue Construction of Pleasanton only through published accounts after the tragedy at the Library Gardens apartments that killed six and injured seven young people.

On Tuesday, the state contractors board filed a formal complaint against Segue Construction, seeking to suspend or revoke its license.

Following the accident, almost all the bereaved families are seeking damages in a lawsuit filed by the San Francisco law firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger against Segue, the BlackRock companies that owned the apartment and the Greystar companies that managed it.

At the Capitol, the building industry groups opposing Hill’s bill met with lawmakers, wrote letters and made political contributions. In the end, Hill removed the reporting requirement.

As amended, Hill’s measure requires the Contractors State License Board to conduct a study and report back to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2018, on whether the board’s ability to protect the public would be improved by enacting regulations requiring licensees to report to the board any judgments, arbitration awards or settlement payments related to their work. The bill also requires a study by the California Building Standards Commission.

Once the measure’s reporting requirement was scratched, the building industry withdrew its opposition, and the bill won a unanimous vote in the Assembly and Senate.

I will never get anything else from my daughter. … She will never get married. Her father will never walk her up the aisle. … Her father did carry her up the aisle – he carried her coffin up the aisle.

Sonoma County mother whose 22-year-old daughter Ashley was among those killed

To those unfamiliar with the ways of the Legislature, it might sound like studying the matter further would be a sensible approach. However, it is important to understand that sending a measure off for more study has been, historically, a favored means of killing it off.

In this instance, hopefully, these studies will produce findings that give the Legislature the backbone it lacked to do the right thing – toughen reporting requirements so the bad actors can be identified.

Tom Miller, an attorney who has handled hundreds of defective-construction settlements, including one for $3.5 million against Segue Construction in 2013, said Hill’s legislation “doesn’t include the robust form of reporting and accountability that I would like to have seen. If there are builders who repeatedly violate the law and cause millions of dollars in property damage and catastrophe including deaths, they need to be held accountable.”

All but one of the 13 victims of the balcony collapse were from Ireland. Philip Grant, consul general of Ireland to the western United States, told me the families of the dead and injured “feel very strongly that if you have a situation where a contractor is involved in private settlements regarding deficiencies in the construction process, this information should be shared with the Contractors State License Board to determine if this a canary-in-the-mine situation.”

Hill told me he believes that, either by statute or regulation, rules will be enacted requiring contractors to report defect settlements and help avoid other tragedies.

The need for these requirements is obvious.

Take it from Jackie Donohoe, a Sonoma County mother whose 22-year-old daughter, Ashley, was among those killed, along with Ashley’s Irish cousin, Olivia Burke, and four others who were working in a summer student visa program.

Donohoe testified on Hill’s bill in August before the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

“If you think about it,” she told the committee, “the main reason (the building industry) doesn’t want reforms to go through is so they can do secret settlements and hide their negligent construction when they get caught.”

She told how for Mother’s Day last year – the month before Ashley died – her daughter gave her a necklace with the words on it “I love you to the moon and back.”

In a clear, strong voice, Donohoe said: “I will never get anything else from my daughter. … She will never get married. Her father will never walk her up the aisle. … Her father did carry her up the aisle – he carried her coffin up the aisle.”

Aoife Beary, one of seven Irish young people injured in the collapse, also testified – sometimes sobbing quietly. It was Beary’s 21st birthday being celebrated that night, and the three young men and three young women who died had been her friends since childhood.

Beary described her injuries: “traumatic brain injury, open-heart surgery, broken arms, hands, pelvis and jaw, along with losing all my teeth. I had lacerations in my liver, kidneys and spleen. I had a collapsed lung and broken ribs.”

“None of this needed to happen,” Beary said.

Then, Beary delivered a powerful indictment of the Legislature’s feeble response: “I cannot believe why you are even debating this bill. People died. You should assure all balconies are scrutinized in this state to prevent this from happening again.”

If legislators watch the video of Donohoe and Beary’s testimony, maybe next time they will do the right thing.

Susan Sward is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Contact her at sward.susan@gmail.com.

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