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Legislative effort stops local governments from altering engineers’ plans

 

Posted August 30, 2017

The problem stemmed from a court ruling in 1963.

The City of Baltimore and Baltimore Gas and Electric had drifted into a dispute over a city plan to move some energy equipment. The city insisted it had the authority to proceed unilaterally. BGE, however, insisted such changes could only be made if the city engineer consulted with the utility and obtained signed consent from BGE’s professional engineers to modify the engineering plans.

The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city.

That ruling gave local governments in Maryland the leeway to modify “at their discretion” plans developed and signed by professional engineers without ever securing the engineers’ consent to the changes, said Chris Costello, Senior Partner at the Public Sector Consulting Group (PSCG) and the Maryland Society of Professional Engineers’ lobbyist in Annapolis. And those modifications could be made by a city or county engineer even if that person wasn’t a registered professional engineer.

Local government officials typically refrained from using that discretionary power, so the court’s ruling “wasn’t causing a big problem, but it was a problem waiting to happen,” Costello said.

Occasional stories surfaced of local government officials unilaterally altering engineer’s drawings – shortening a bridge, changing a gravel mix, shifting a pillar or making other changes to construction plans.

The situation raised the prospect that “one of these days, a county engineer who isn’t a professional engineer, was going to erase a critical line from a specification and we would have a catastrophic problem,” Costello said.

Even changes which resulted in minor issues or questions, generated problems for professional engineers and their government clients. 

“The concern is that any alteration of the product produced by a professional engineer would potentially come back and create liability for that engineer,” said Tory Pierce, President of the Maryland Society of Professional Engineers. 

Any problem with a completed project could trigger a dispute about whether the original plan or the modification was responsible.

“Even if the liability ends up in the hands of whoever made changes to the plans, it doesn’t mean it is not going to cost you time and money to get to that conclusion,” Pierce said. 

Furthermore, an industry survey revealed that Maryland was one of only six states that allow local governments to modify engineer-signed plans.

So the Maryland Society of Professional Engineers set out to correct the situation. Costello began approaching individual county officials and the Maryland Association of Counties to get their opinions of draft legislation that would require local governments to have engineering documents signed by professional engineers. 

It took more than a year and two legislative sessions to secure the needed support, but finally SB 226 became law and ensured that local governments’ engineering plans must be properly reviewed and signed by a professional engineering.

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