Over Laborers’ concerns, Mendota Heights district awards work to ‘problem contractors’

LaborersUnion-logo150x150School board members in Mendota Heights yesterday awarded construction contracts to two firms despite concerns about unsafe working conditions and poor oversight on other projects handled by the contractors.

Independent School District 197 accepted bids to oversee renovation work on two elementary schools from Derau Construction and Ebert Construction – both “problem contractors,” Mendota Heights parent Brian Brunette told board members during a listening session prior to last night’s board meeting.

“They both have a history of poor performance,” said Brunette, a member of Laborers Local 563. “I value my tax dollars, and I think every citizen in Mendota Heights School District deserves more.”

The Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota distributed a packet of information prior to the meeting that included eyewitness accounts and photo evidence calling into question worker and public safety on Derau and Ebert job sites. Brunette and Kevin Pranis, the council’s organizing director, warned that both contractors carry significant baggage, including, in Derau’s case, an acknowledged incident in which a child repeatedly performed dangerous work on a school construction site.

Derau and Ebert have established a “pattern of going from one school district to another after doing substandard work” and “creating problems that far exceed the savings” provided by their low bids, Pranis told board members.

Derau and Ebert are non-union contractors, but that’s not why the Laborers chose to sound the alarm, Pranis said. Doing business the right way has its costs, and by accepting bids from “problem contractors,” districts like Mendota Heights lower standards in the industry, making it harder for responsible contractors – union or non-union – to get work.

Everyone makes mistakes?

Board members at the listening session acknowledged they were mostly unaware of the allegations against Derau and Ebert – including the well publicized incident with the minor – until being approached by the Laborers union. That prompted St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Bobby Kasper to question the district’s process for reviewing bids.

“If there is a better procedure to screen these contractors, I ask you to do that,” Kasper said.

At the meeting, board members were unanimous in voting to award the contracts to Derau and Ebert. Board Chair Mark Spurr thanked the Laborers’ for voicing their concerns, but said allegations are just that.

“Is there, in fact, documented proof of a pattern?” he wondered. “I don’t know any contractor who has never made a mistake.”

Spurr added: “Without a citation from state regulators, it’s a little bit hard for me to use that as a basis for saying, ‘You’re not a responsible bidder.’”

But Mike Wilde, director the Fair Contracting Foundation of Minnesota, said school districts and municipalities do, in fact, have discretion when it comes to setting standards and rejecting bids from non-responsible contractors.

“School boards have the legal authority to reject a bid from a problem contractor,” Wilde said. “The question is whether the board is willing to use it. When entering into a large public construction project, the quality of service should be a top consideration. The school district’s discretion should be used when it can avoid problems that have occurred on similar projects.”

‘Makes me sick’

The board’s decision not to exercise that discretion disappointed several residents who attended the meeting, including members of Service Employees International Union Local 284. Many expressed disappointment the board would dismiss a union’s concerns after union members volunteered their time to help pass funding referendums in recent years.

“It just makes me sick,” Brunette said. “I voted for the last school referendum. I put a sign in my yard. I can’t believe the district would give our money to these characters. Our kids deserve better.”

Board members thanked the Laborers for voicing their concerns and pledged to keep an even closer watch on Derau and Ebert as the renovations move forward.

“We’re going to be making damn sure this job is done to spec,” Spurr said.

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