Senate committee hosts hearing in response to Berkeley balcony collapse

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Nearly a year after the Berkeley balcony collapse, a state Senate committee hosted a hearing Monday to examine the state’s agencies’ responses to the tragedy.

City and state agencies presented their responses to the balcony collapse regarding investigations on building code compliance and stricter construction requirements at the Committee on Business, Professions and Economic Development’s hearing.

“It’s unfortunate that so often it takes a tragedy to expose those potential problems with the government’s ability to protect the public,” said Senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, at the hearing. “It’s our responsibility to determine if improvements need to be made to prevent future tragedies.”

According to Hill, Segue Construction Company, the company that constructed the Library Gardens Apartment complex where the collapse took place, had a history of “questionable work.” Over the past three years, the company has paid out $26.5 million in construction defect settlements to various plaintiffs, according to the hearing’s background guide.

“This hearing will be the first opportunity for the Senate to explore the policy issues surrounding the Berkeley balcony incident and its potential implications for reforms,” Hill noted.

The balcony collapse, according to Hill, brought light to the fact that the Contractors State License Board — the state’s “construction watchdog” — did not have proper procedures to investigate contractors.

(The board is) prepared to identify a staff person to research civil settlements for the next 12 months, to reach out to building departments, to see if there were any code violations due to contractors’ lack of building code compliance,” said David Fogt, the board’s chief of enforcement.

The board conducts approximately 19,000 investigations annually, according to Fogt. In 2015, more than 400 included a code violation, 294 of which presented legal actions and were reported to the board by an industry member, a building official or a compliance group, Fogt said.

The board believes in creating a partnership with building departments to identify any problems they have experienced with contractors, Fogt added.

“That’s where we want to focus on,” Fogt said. “In being proactive in identifying contractors that aren’t complying with the code and take action earlier so that a tragedy doesn’t occur.”

The City of Berkeley has implemented a series of modifications to construction policies, which were codified in an ordinance adopted 30 days after the collapse. These changes stipulate stricter requirements on balconies such as the material used for construction and the design of the structures, said Carol Johnson, Berkeley’s acting planning director.

Since the inspection program was set, 5,560 property owners have submitted forms for inspection to the City of Berkeley out of the 6,100 that were notified — comprising a 91 percent response rate, according to Johnson.

“Ireland has been very deeply affected and impacted by the tragedy that happened in Berkeley last year,” said Irish Consul General Philip Grant. “We very much welcome the work that has been done by the city authorities in Berkeley, by the district attorney’s office and by the state licensing board.”

Contact Sofia Gonzalez-Platas at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sgonzalezplatas.