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Published in Print: June 19, 2002, as Ruling Sparks Row Over Ohio Construction Panel

Ruling Sparks Row Over Ohio Construction Panel

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Ohio Gov. Bob Taft last week ordered the state's school construction commission to better manage itself and open its contract-review process.

Randall A. Fischer

His recommendations came after a county judge ruled that Randall A. Fischer, the commission's executive director, acted without authority in awarding $2 billion in construction contracts over the past five years.

The ruling sent tremors through the state. One lawmaker has called for Mr. Fischer's dismissal. Meanwhile, the Democratic candidate for governor joined a state union leader in urging him to step down for blocking payments of union- scale wages on school construction projects.

Gov. Taft, a Republican, said he supported Mr. Fischer, but agreed that the three-member commissionnot just Mr. Fischershould approve school construction projects. The governor also requested that the commission adopt new management rules and retroactively vote on the 1,800 contracts approved by Mr. Fischer.

"While I question the validity of the recent court opinion ... I ask that the commission undertake immediate changes that will provide more direct oversight and approval of commission projects," he said in a June 11 statement.

In May, Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Jennifer L. Brunner stated in a biting, 68-page ruling that the state's competitive bid process was a "sham."

"The public education of the state's children, an essential government function, is threatened by the unbridled discretion unlawfully placed in the hands of one person, Randall Fischer. This is unconscionable," she wrote.

Her ruling could mean that many building projects could be subject to lawsuits, some observers say, and throw Gov. Taft's much-heralded $23 billion school construction program off track.

The issue has political overtones, some observers note. Not only do the calls for Mr. Fischer's dismissal come from Democrats, but Judge Brunner is an elected Democrat who represented a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate in a 1998 complaint to the state election commission.

Meanwhile, the Ohio Court of Appeals issued a stay of Judge Brunner's decision pending the outcome of an appeal by the state attorney general.

Mr. Fischer said that he was surprised by Judge Brunner's ruling and that the school facilities commission had passed two resolutions granting him the authority to approve contracts. He has approved projects in 73 of the state's 612 school districts.

As the three- member commission meets quarterly, it does not have the time to review and vote on each contract, said Mr. Fischer, who took office with the commission's creation in 1997. He added, "Nobody's making accusations that this money is being misspent or being misappropriated. The question is about the process. That's why the governor and key legislators are standing behind me."

Construction Delays

Judge Brunner's decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the Cincinnati-based Monarch Construction Co. against the 800- student Tri-Village school district in western Ohio. Monarch filed suit this spring after its bid for a $6.1 million contract to renovate the system's K-12 school was rejected by the school board despite being the lowest one submitted.

Instead, the board chose Wapakoneta-based Peterson Construction Co., which submitted a bid that was more than $133,000 higher than Monarch's. The state facilities commission supported the local school board's decision on the project, which is being partially funded by the state.

If the appeals court had not granted a stay, Tri-Village would have been forced to award the contract to Monarch or rebid the project. Either option would have delayed the school's renovation, says Jack Rosati Jr., the lawyer for Tri-Village. Now construction by Peterson will go forward. The renovated school is slated to open in August 2003. "We have 400 elementary kids going to school in a 1920s building designed for 200," Mr. Rosati said.

Ohio Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery sought the stay, arguing that "the ones who are most harmed by the delay imposed by the trial court's decision are Ohio's schoolchildren."

Vol. 21, Issue 41, Page 22

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