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MAHONING COUNTY State investigators probe building inspection office



Published: Sun, May 13, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Mahoning County will make changes to the building department soon.

By STEPHEN SIFF

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

AUSTINTOWN -- The Ohio Department of Commerce is conducting a review of the Mahoning County Building Inspection Department, based on a request by county officials and a letter from a disgruntled employee.

"The review is still in its infancy stages," said Thomas Ratcliff, a spokesman for the department of commerce. "It is a very comprehensive process."

State investigators have visited the county building department and interviewed employees twice since the state Board of Building Standards authorized the review Jan. 19. They will return to examine department records, policies and procedures before the review, which may stretch for several more months, is complete, Ratcliff said.

"It is really beyond an audit," Ratcliff said. "It is a review and an investigation at the same time."

License in question: The department of commerce licenses local building departments to inspect commercial buildings and issue them certificates of occupancy on its behalf. This license to perform commercial inspections could be in jeopardy if the inspectors find serious problems in the way the department does business, Ratcliff said.

The state department does not regulate the inspection of one-, two- and three-dwelling homes.

Secretary's letter: The review was spurred by a request from Kevin Sellards, the county human resources director, after a secretary in the county building department sent him a letter enumerating several problems she perceived in the way the department handled commercial inspections.

The letter, from Debra Campbell, also spoke at length about incidents she regarded as sexual harassment and a work environment she saw as hostile.

Sellards forwarded the letter to the department of commerce.

"We were looking at internal processes in the department since the article this fall in The Vindicator," Sellards said. "When Campbell's letter came in, that stimulated my letter to the state."

The Vindicator reported last fall that 80 percent of homes constructed in 1999 did not have complete inspection records. Last week, the newspaper reported that many newly constructed or expanded commercial facilities, including portions of public school buildings, had been in use for more than a year before being approved for occupancy.

Allegations probed: Sellards' letter asked the department of commerce to send investigators to the local building department office, referring to three specific paragraphs in Campbell's five-page complaint. In those paragraphs, she writes that she has observed a "definite disparity" among how various contractors are treated; that requested commercial building inspections are never completed; that there are conflicts of interest among architects who review building plans for the county; and that builders are charged different amounts by different plan reviewers.

Don Hall, Mahoning County's chief building official, said that there was nothing to the allegations.

"This is no 'investigation' because something was improperly handled," said Gary Kubic, the county administrator. "It is just part of a performance audit, similar to what the state auditor does" at other county departments, he said.

Campbell, who started at the department Sept. 25, has filed a claim with the Bureau of Workers' Compensation for a case of tendinitis she says she developed on the job. She said she is also considering filing a lawsuit for sexual harassment. Sellards declined to elaborate on her current status with the county beyond saying that she has been on paid administrative leave since April 9.

Changes coming: Kubic said the county is preparing to make changes to the building department based on its own review of procedures there in the next few weeks.

"We are really going to focus on quality management, quality control," he said.

Union leaders have already been contacted about one change, staggering employee start times to keep the office open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is now open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., though a sign on the door says it closes at 4 p.m.

Other changes in the works include introducing six-month reviews of all employee inspection records and requiring inspectors to keep more detailed logs of how they spend their day, Kubicsaid.

Building inspectors may also be asked to return to the office to complete paperwork at the end of their workdays. Currently, the four inspectors do paperwork first thing in the morning, leave to go on inspections, and then return the following day. Tracking devices will be installed on their cars as they are installed on the rest of the county fleet, Kubic said.

A new computer system that will track individual projects through the permitting and construction process should be online soon, he said.

Employee handbook: New procedures and an employee handbook also will be developed, Kubic said. The clerk of the board of commissioners, Tom Smith, is planing a visit to Hamilton County to see how practices at their once-troubled building department were turned around, he said.

"When we flip this, we are going to flip it," Kubic said.

siff@vindy.com




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