Angry courthouse dispute headed for mediation

 

A session with a high-dollar Bay Area mediator has been
scheduled for the second week of May, in an effort to bring a
resolution to the bitter dispute between Santa Clara County and
West Bay Builders, the contractor of the Morgan Hill courthouse
project that has dragged on for four years.
Morgan Hill

A session with a high-dollar Bay Area mediator has been scheduled for the second week of May, in an effort to bring a resolution to the bitter dispute between Santa Clara County and West Bay Builders, the contractor of the Morgan Hill courthouse project that has dragged on for four years.

The county and the contractor will split the roughly $25,000 cost of a two-day session with mediator Randi Wulff, according to courthouse project manager Ken Rado. He said the price of mediation is worth it if it saves the county millions of dollars the contractor says it is owed.

“My understanding is that Mr. Wulff is highly competent and known for achieving agreements when agreements were seemingly out of reach,” said Rado. “I can’t guarantee anything, but from what I hear of his reputation, he’s very good at achieving agreements. I’m optimistic.”

The goal of the mediation is to avoid a lawsuit that could result in far costlier attorneys’ fees, not to mention the payout of a substantial claim. Currently, the contractor says the county owes at least $5 million more than what the original contract provides, and various subcontractors claim about another $10 million, according to West Bay Builders President Paul Thompson.

Thompson said he has been a party in “a couple dozen” mediation sessions, a few of which have been presided by Wulff.

“Our track record with Randy Wulff is very good,” said Thompson. “He usually gets me to make very big concessions, and I usually come out of there unhappy and disgruntled.”

Setting Wulff apart from other mediators is the fact that he is a “good listener,” Thompson said, and he is able to tell if someone is being dishonest. “He gets to the heart of the issue very quickly, and he doesn’t let people flip-flop,” said Thompson. “He can sort out people who are being untruthful pretty quick.”

Wulff said, “More often than not, mediation works.”

He said he is not yet familiar with the facts of the case, and even if he was, confidentiality agreements would prohibit him from discussing such details. However, he noted that the fact that the two parties have scheduled a two-day mediation session illustrates how complicated and tense the courthouse dispute is, as most mediations are scheduled for a single day.

He described the typical mediation as a “turbocharged negotiation, where I’m the turbocharger.” He said the day starts out with both parties in the same room, and each side can elect to make an informal presentation of the facts as they perceive them.

After the presentation, the parties retreat into separate rooms, with Wulff shuttling offers and counter-offers across the hall until a non-binding settlement is reached.

“When people meet with a mediator it’s completely confidential, so people are completely candid,” said Wulff. “If it works, that’s why it works.”

If there is no settlement at the end of the long day, the case goes back to where it started and the two parties proceed to litigation.

Thompson said design changes made by the county after construction started have cost his company more than expected, and the county believes the contractor is responsible for shoddy work that has delayed the project, which is now expected to be complete by February 2009.

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