Soiled Hands

Page 9 of 11

For years, the agency has offered a special program that lets homeowners make "informal" complaints against their builders. The inspectors take a look, as with formal complaints, but the complaints never become part of the builder's record.

Nothing in the law, the auditor noted, allowed the Registrar to investigate such complaints. Furthermore, the process concealed information that ought to be available to consumers.

"[B]ecause the results were not publicly reported, other consumers could not use the information in choosing a contractor," the auditor's report concluded.

The builders, though, were intent on keeping the program.

Even before the auditor's report was released publicly, before Goldwater resigned, the House began considering legislation that would allow the agency to keep taking informal complaints.

The final bill officially authorizing the program was signed by Governor Napolitano in May 2003, two months after the auditor's report was released, according to records.

And two years later, despite the auditor's concerns, the Legislature quietly agreed to expand the program. Previously, informal complaints could only cover up to five "construction issues." The new law allowed "an unlimited number," according to the House Bill Summary.

Naturally, the "informal" complaints were only useful if they could be kept from the public. The bill included a special secrecy provision, barring the Registrar from releasing information about informal complaints on its Web site.

Governor Napolitano signed the bill into law that spring.

There is no record that the Registrar opposed the secrecy amendment. In an interview, Torres says he believes the agency fought the provision, but when his spokeswoman was asked to provide details, she never called back. (Audio tapes from one legislative committee meeting record the provision being discussed, with no argument from the Registrar's lobbyist, who was present.)

And though the auditor's report also suggested that the Registrar put formal complaints online, that never happened either.

It wasn't wholly the Registrar's fault.

In 2004, the Registrar submitted a $412,000 proposal to put complaints online, says D.J. Harper, a spokesman for the state's Government Information Technology Agency, which supervises new technology projects.

The Legislature chose not to fund it.

Six months later, though, when the Registrar proposed a $600,000 Web project, funding was approved immediately, according to records.

That difference?

The first project was against the wishes of the homebuilders.

The second project, the one that got funded, was not: It allowed builders to renew their licenses online.

The online registration system went live last August, Harper says.

As for the online complaints, well, no one's said a word about them since.

Like many homeowners, Melinda Westcott showed up for her hearing over her housing complaints seriously outmatched.

She brought a boyfriend. Del Webb sent a lawyer and two engineers.

(This time, they were both actually engineers.)

After state inspectors had confirmed that Westcott's problems were serious, the company made a much better offer than its previous "goodwill gesture" to patch her cracks and give her gutters. They wanted to inject the soil under her home with chemicals to stabilize it.

Del Webb has used the technique in at least 100 homes in Anthem, according to a filing from its lawyer in an unrelated court case.

But it remains somewhat controversial among construction defect lawyers: Some of them say the only real remedy is to replace the soils beneath the foundation with ones that won't swell. The chemical injections, they say, may not work over time.

Westcott was unsure, and more than that, her annoyance had hardened her.

She hadn't been able to enjoy her home for a full year. She'd also been cited by her homeowners' association for failing to put in landscaping. (Builders frequently blame soil problems on the landscaping, and she wanted to make sure Del Webb had no out.) She'd missed numerous days of work -- 33, by her count -- to let the builders into her home to make repairs.

"They were out here for the door alone six times," she says.

She wanted the builder to feel the hit. It seemed wrong that the only question was whether Del Webb fixed the house, and not whether it messed up in the first place.

But when the administrative law judge, Sondra Vanella, asked if Westcott would be willing to negotiate with the builder in private, she consented. She knew she had little chance of the builder's license being yanked.

They met for more than two hours that day, and this month, Del Webb's lawyer asked for the case to be continued so they can continue talking. The next hearing is now set for May; Del Webb spokeswoman Petroulakis says the company is hopeful for an agreement.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske