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Oconomowoc review stands between Dorner, city job

Sean Ryan
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Dorner Inc.’s low bid for an Oconomowoc utility project is testing the subjectivity of a city safety review that determines if a contractor is qualified.

Oconomowoc established the review after Dorner crews in April 2008 moved a gas pipe, causing a gas leak and subsequent explosion that destroyed a church and two homes on West Wisconsin Avenue. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. is suing the contractor and Wisconsin Electric Power Co., which owned the unmarked gas pipe, for damages to the houses.

Now, Luxemburg-based Dorner has submitted the low bid to fix utilities on the same street and one block from the 2008 gas leak. The city’s Utility Committee will consider the company’s safety history and programs before deciding whether to accept Dorner’s $1.1 million bid, which was $2,000 less than the next lowest offering.

Mayor Maurice Sullivan and other city leaders are keeping an open mind.

“You don’t want it to be a knee-jerk reaction,” he said.

Dorner representatives did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

As a result of the explosion, the city requires contractors submit with their bids safety documents, including written safety programs, worker training records, a list of Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations in the past five years, workers’ compensation information and records of injuries that resulted in lost-work days. No one was injured in the 2008 explosion, but OSHA fined Dorner $4,200 after the blast.

The city’s safety review does not set objective thresholds for contractors. It requires city officials first consider the safety documents and then make a subjective decision.

“It may be different on every one that you do,” said Alderman David Nold, a member of the Utility Committee.

“You can’t say there’s a specific set of rules that are going to guide somebody. You have to use common sense, intuition.”

Nold said he will consider that Dorner crews were involved in the explosion. But the incident does not justify disqualifying Dorner without reviewing its bid and safety information, he said.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Nold said.

A system that makes safety a prerequisite for builders is new, said City Attorney G. William Chapman. The subjective nature of the review, which Chapman said he did not draft, probably raises some questions.

“There can always be legal issues brought up by somebody,” he said, “but none have been brought up, up to this date.”

The bids for the West Wisconsin Avenue utility contract were opened Wednesday, so city staff has not yet reviewed the bids and safety information, said Mark Frye, city director of public works. He said the safety review has led to the disqualification of two contractors from working on city projects.

Sullivan said he would be comfortable hiring Dorner if the builder passes muster in the safety review.

“Obviously, we’re mindful of the explosion,” he said, “and I felt — and I know that our staff felt — that Dorner had been responsive after the unfortunate event.

“So I think we’re interested in how this project is going to go forward and if it’s going to be performed under safe conditions.”

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