Is it unreasonable to expect a government agency to get its act together in eight months? We think not, which is why we wonder whether the Mahoning County Building Inspection Department has reached the point of no return and should, therefore, undergo a top-to-bottom shakeup.
A front page story in last Sunday's Vindicator revealed that as of mid-April, at least 100 commercial structures, including schools, had not been approved for occupancy by the department. Yet last September, after The Vindicator exposed glaring shortcomings in the building inspection department's operations, county commissioners promised a major overhaul.
It could be argued that having the Ohio Department of Commerce conduct "a review and an investigation" of the department's commercial building operations is a significant step toward the overhaul. According to a story in today's paper, the state agency was asked by Kevin Sellards, the county's human resources director, to assign investigators after a secretary, Debra Campbell, sent him a letter that raised questions about the way the department handled commercial inspections.
Sellards acknowledged that the county began examining the "internal processes" of the department after The Vindicator's story last September revealed that 80 percent of the homes constructed in 1999 did not have complete inspection records.
As for the commerce department's involvement, spokesman Thomas Ratcliff characterized it thus: "It is really beyond an audit. It is a review and an investigation at the same time."
Expanded probe: In light of last Sunday's revelations about the absence of occupancy permits for the commercial structures, we believe that county commissioners Vicki Allen Sherlock, Edward Reese and David Ludt should either ask the state commerce department to expand its investigation, even though the agency does not have jurisdiction over residential construction, or seek guidance from the state attorney general's office.
Even though a new computer system will be on-line shortly, enabling officials to track individual projects through the permitting and construction process, and building inspectors' records and work logs will be reviewed every six months, we have concluded that enough questions have been raised about the operation of the department to warrant an independent probe.
Campbell, in her letter to Sellards, raises the specter of favoritism and conflicts of interest. Those are serious allegations that cannot be brushed off. If Sellards believed that her complaints about the commercial inspections warranted a review by the state commerce department, it stands to reason that he should also take seriously her claim that a "definite disparity" exists among how various contractors are treated.
Campbell, who was hired Sept. 25 and has been on paid administrative leave since April 9, alleged that contractors aren't treated the same by the inspection department, 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.
Newspaper's findings: Whether these are the observations of an employee not entirely familiar with the operations of the department, or are the musings of an individual who is considering filing a lawsuit for sexual harassment, the fact remains that the allegations seem to bolster The Vindicator's findings about the operation of the building inspection department.
It is clear that drastic measures are demanded. The absence of records pertaining to occupancy permits for schools, restaurants and medical offices, all places that draw large numbers of people, cannot be dismissed as an operational deficiency.