By MIKE CHAIKEN
In August, former Bristol state legislator Roger Michele spoke to the Bristol City Council about concerns he had with the building department.
Michele told the council that by his own investigation, he had found “30 different zoning and building code violations totaling approximately 106 separate breaches” from 2007. In his public presentation, Michele expressed concern that there might be favoritism in the department toward certain contractors or types of business, who subsequently were receiving financial breaks on permits, which in turn was costing the city money.
At the meeting, Mayor Ken Cockayne asked Michele for a copy of the material he had collected so it could be reviewed.
At last week’s meeting (according to a video of the meeting posted at NutmegTV.org), Councilor Mary Fortier asked city personnel director Diane Ferguson for a follow-up on Michele’s presentation, noting that she already had an email conversation with Ferguson and received a 30-plus page report about the investigation into the building department.
Subsequent to the August council meeting, Michele, a Democrat who served as state representative for the city for many years, approached The Observer to review the matter further. He presented the Observer with many of the documents referred to in the presentation before the council.
The Observer also met with a source familiar with the operations of the building department who had provided the materials to Michele. The source, whose name is being withheld by The Observer at the request of the source, offered a deeper explanation of what Michele presented at the council. The source noted discrepancies on the fees received by the department and what the regulations dictated for the fees. The source also pointed out other issues arising from the work done by the department and the fees received.
Given the source’s and Michele’s allegations, The Observer approached Chief Building Official Guy Morin with some written questions about the allegations made about his department from Michele and the source.
Morin subsequently sent a response to the questions to personnel director Diane Ferguson. The response from Morin to Ferguson included testimony submitted to the city engineer Paul Strawderman and assistant city engineer Raymond A. Rogozinski, from Carol Noble, a certified flood plain manager, copies of legal notices, and a response from Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection that refuted the allegations. Those responses were provided to The Observer by Morin in a face-to-face interview.
In report to the mayor dated Oct. 27, Ferguson said after an investigation into several of Michele’s concerns, no action was needed. One complaint, however, resulted in “staff reinforcement of (the need for) accurate calculations (in determining fees).” Another explanation of actions taken after Michele’s presentation, said, “Department staff must ensure that applicant pays amount on permit application. Work should be double checked for accuracy and completeness.” A couple of items raised by Michele also resulted in going back to the permittees to seek additional fees owed.
Another recommendation from Ferguson that arose from Michele’s complaint was the requirement that building department staffers provide “more backup documentation with specific calculations be required going forward for partial payments for foundation only permits. A reliable system needs to be set up to ensure that full payment is received… the city needs to ensure that all fees due are received prior to a (certificate of occupancy.”
Although Michele said in his August presentation that auto body shops seem to receive a preferential treatment from the building department, Ferguson said that since Michele provided no documentation to backup his allegation, “I did not consider that claim.”
“Overall, while I did find examples of incorrect charges, which must be addressed through reinforcement with current staff, I do not see any indication that these permitting issues were handled intentionally careless nor can I conclude that there was any intent to favor any particular party.”
In a meeting with Morin, the chief building official, denied any kind of favoritism for certain permittees. He also showed several permit applications from the same time period as the ones highlighted by Michele and pointed out some of the same discrepancies and errors were found across the board from department staffers—with no discernible pattern. He said, as recommended by Ferguson, the building department personnel will need to be more diligent with the permitting process, showing the work that led them to determine the fees. Morin also said he will be more diligent as a manager to ensure the fees are properly applied by his department.
In a reference to Michele’s claim at the August meeting that the building department showed preference to certain applicants, Fortier at the November council meeting asked Ferguson if there were any “red flags” to back the claim.
Ferguson said there was a “thorough enough review” and she seemed to be satisfied there was no favoritism.
Fortier also asked Ferguson as to why her department handled the investigation rather than an independent entity… such as a building official from another town. Ferguson said she had been directed by the mayor to take the lead.
Fortier also was concerned that the information might have been too technical for the personnel director to properly review. Ferguson said she did consult with city officials more familiar with the technical aspect of the building department such as the city engineer as she reviewed Michele’s concerns.
Ferguson told Fortier that an action plan has been put into place for the building department where the permitting process has been tightened up and will be more transparent in the future.