State lawmakers pass bill in response to Berkeley balcony collapse

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Zach Ryan/Staff

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Spurred by a Berkeley balcony collapse that killed six people last summer, state lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday that would require contractors to report past felonies and other crimes involving construction defects to the Contractors State License Board.

Senators Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, introduced SB 465, which also stipulates that the California Building Standards Commission must perform a study on recent exterior elevated structure failures and submit a report with suggestions for improvements to existing building codes.

The city of Berkeley has already taken steps to help prevent future accidents. In June, a city report found that about one in five balconies inspected in the six months after the collapse required corrective work.

In the three years before the accident, Segue Construction Inc., the lead contractor of the apartment where the balcony collapse occurred, had been involved in more than $26 million worth of settlements.

Segue Construction Inc. could not be reached for comment. In April, the Contractors State License Board found that Segue Construction Inc. and other contractors involved in the building more likely than not violated California law, which could lead to the suspension or revocation of their contractors’ licenses.

Sixteen victims and their families filed lawsuits against the builders, owners and managers of the Library Gardens apartment complex after the collapse.

SB 465 was originally voted down in July 2015. Some assembly members previously said that they voted no on the original version because its too-broad language could negatively impact contractors not necessarily at fault for construction defects.

President of the Structural Engineers Association of California Kelly Cobeen said representatives from her organization have been attending meetings discussing building codes and inspections and that she supports the bill’s call for more discussion on the improvement of building standards.

“The most important thing is that it is very complicated and there is no silver bullet that will make everything right,” Cobeen said.

Building code is established at a national level, which is then adopted and sometimes modified at the state and local level, according to Cobeen. She said that because of these standards, California’s building code is about on par with the rest of the country, and may be more progressive in some areas.

Founder of the Berkeley Research Company Bernard Cuzzillo, who examined the building the morning of the collapse, said that dry rot most likely caused the collapse. Cuzzillo said that several structural aspects could have failed, causing the rot, and stressed the importance of routine, sound inspections to prevent such failings.

“You should be able to get in there and poke (structures) with a probe to verify that they’re sound,” Cuzzillo said.

The mother of one the victims, Jackie Donohoe, is trying to gain support for the bill to make sure that the governor signs it into law by Sept. 30.

“I would say that we hope that this is the first step,”  said Eustace de Saint Phalle, Donohoe’s attorney in a lawsuit involving the collapse. “This is a bill that is intended to have the contractors’ board and the state … see what needs to be done to protect citizens from shoddy contractor work.”

Contact Pressly Pratt at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @presslypratt.