A Center City lawyer and a member of Philadelphia City Council on Tuesday called on government agencies to stop awarding contracts to companies with questionable safety records just because they submitted the lowest bids.
Brian E. Fritz joined City Councilmember Bobby Henon in saying safety should be a factor in weighing to whom to give construction work.
Henon, a longtime member of Electricians Local 98 and its former political director, said recent changes in how the city awards construction contracts were “a step in the right direction.” But he said inconsistencies in state code need to be ironed out and more needs to be done to educate workers and employers about federal safety requirements.
Since a 2017 voter-approved charter change that was proposed by the Kenney administration, Philadelphia has used a system called Best Value procurement, which allows the city to consider things beyond the lowest bid when awarding contracts. These factors include quality of work and past performance.
In addition, vendors bidding on city contracts must go through a prequalification process, and the city Procurement Department meets with all public works departments quarterly to review and rate all completed projects from the previous quarter. That review helps guide the city in evaluating the awarding of future contracts, officials said.
“I think we’ve put a number of mechanisms in place to ensure that we are getting the best value, the best quality, on our construction projects,” said Stephanie Tipton, the city’s chief administrative officer. “I do feel confidant that we are, a), taking it very seriously, and, b), taking proactive steps to address any issues that vendors may have had with performance or having a record of, perhaps, poor safety.”
Fritz and Henon said agencies beyond city government should be more vigilant in evaluating firms seeking public construction projects.
Fritz cited the case of John “Jay” Johnson, a member of Laborers Local 57, who drowned in January 2016 after he fell through a man-made opening on Pier 78 into the Delaware River in South Philadelphia. At the time, he said, Agate Construction Co. of Clermont, N.J., was renovating the pier for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority.
“When Agate bid the project, they weren’t asked their history. They weren’t asked their safety record. They were merely asked to be the lowest bidder to get the project," Fritz said during a news conference at the Notary Hotel near City Hall. His firm last week secured a $10.5 million settlement for Johnson’s family from Agate.
Henon, who represents the 6th District, called Johnson’s death preventable. Johnson’s widow, Kimberly, attended the news conference but did not speak.
Fritz and Henon said there had been other injuries — and at least one other death — at Agate Construction projects.
Efforts to reach Agate and its attorney, John T. Donovan, were unsuccessful.
Ayanna Williams, spokesperson for the port authority, declined to discuss the concerns raised at Tuesday’s news conference or the process it uses for awarding contracts.