I-Team: Largo building dept. may have violations

Posted at 9:37 AM, Oct 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-02 09:37:58-04

An inspector in Largo’s City Building department recently turned in the city's building official and three plans examiners to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Licensure, alleging they were violating Florida's building code.

Construction is going on all over Largo, bringing with it millions of dollars in new investment, tax revenue and hundreds of new jobs.

But City Plumbing Inspector Glenn Hall says Largo's Building Department is violating the state building code it is supposed to uphold when approving some of those construction projects. 

“It's to the point now, it's boiling over,” Hall said.

Hall tells the I-Team that the city's construction plans examiners have routinely been approving projects they aren't qualified or licensed to review.

“They're legally not allowed to do plumbing, electrical and mechanical, yet they do,” he said.

Florida's Building Code says construction plan reviews "must be done by a person licensed in the appropriate plans examiner category."

To be licensed, examiners must pass a test and have at least five years of experience in those trades.

State records indicate two of the city's three plans examiners… Adriana Puetes-Shaw and Jon Prettyman… are not licensed in any of those disciplines, and a third examiner, Robert Hatton, wasn't licensed to review electrical plans until he obtained a building administrator’s license in August.  

“For the last seven years, we haven't had anybody to do electrical plans review,” said Hall.

One of the buildings approved by the city is the new Pinellas County Public Safety Center, which is home to the county’s 9-1-1 Center, which serves nearly a million residents.

The city says electrical plan reviews were performed by former building official Ken Andrews, who was qualified to approve building, electrical, mechanical and plumbing plans as a licensed Building Codes Administrator.

But emails obtained by the I-Team show Plans Examiner Robert Hatton, who was not licensed to review electrical plans, supplied all of the plan review comments to the contractor regarding the project, both before and after Andrews resigned.

Andrews resigned on December 4, 2012.

His replacement as building director, William Ondulich, was not licensed by the state as a Building Code Administrator until December 12, 2012.

The 9-1-1 center went offline for several hours shortly after it opened, when a backup power system failed following a lightning strike that hit the building.

A report about the incident says there were several problems in the electrical system plans.

Hall says he often finds plumbing problems in the field, after plans are approved by unlicensed examiners.

The plumbing at a new Largo Wal-mart is a recent example.

“They had to tear out what they put in and then reinstall it,” said Hall.

Hall says the same thing happened at a new Wawa Convenience Store.

“Each time when I got there, they missed it in the office, because they didn't know what they were doing. They don't understand plumbing,” Hall said. 

Contractor Josh Fisher asked for a permit to replace the stairs on this home.

“Start to finish, the job could have been completed in about a week,” he said.

But that's not what happened.

Fisher made multiple trips to city hall, filled out forms, paid fees, and submitted multiple drawings.

When he got one back after more than two months, he found that Plans Examiner Job Prettyman had drawn red “X” marks over most of his plans.

“He just X’d out everything that he doesn't want to agree with or deal with. And he says, 'well, you can just do part' of this,” Fisher said.

Records we obtained show Prettyman has been denied electrical, mechanical and plumbing examiner licenses by the state because of his lack of experience.

Fisher's $4,500 job ended up taking four months, from the time he applied for the initial permit until the final inspection was completed.

“It shouldn't take one day to get a permit,” said Tampa Bay Builder’s Association Executive Vice President Jennifer Doerfel.

Her organization supports consolidating building departments within regions to streamline the process.

“It should be instantaneous. Basically all you're doing is just checking to see if the materials and the installation are approved by the code,” said Doerfel.

Half a dozen contractors we talked to were upset with Largo’s building department, but wouldn't talk on camera, because of fears of more delays in getting permits or inspections.

Largo Community Development Director Carol Stricklin didn’t want to do an interview, but referred us to Largo Spokesperson Brandon Graham, who provided us with the following statement:

"In response to your public records request for the electrical plans for the Pinellas County Public Safety Complex, please be advised that under S. 119.071 (3) (b) 1, the electrical plans are exempt form (sic) disclosure under the Public Records Law. Attached to this email are the electrical plans review comments. The record keeping at the time through the City's permitting system did not record which plans examiner prepared specific comments. The electrical plans reviews of the Pinellas County Public Safety Complex were performed by former Building Official Ken Andrews.

"Regarding your Building Division inquiry, the City has recently received correspondence making allegations related to the Building Division's review of building plans. The Building Codes Administrator (Building Official) is licensed to perform electrical plan review. The City does not currently have a Plans Examiner separately licensed for electrical plan review. The City has retained the services of a contractual licensed electrical plan examiner to review electrical plans and is also recruiting a Senior Plans Examiner with the electrical plan examiner license who will be a full time employee of the City. The City's permitting system has been improved so that the City can document that the appropriately licensed professional has reviewed building, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing plans. All electrical plans are required to be prepared by a licensed professional, and the work is performed by a licensed contractor, and inspected by a licensed electrical city building inspector.

"The integrity of the plans review, permitting and inspection process is of the greatest importance and the City is committed to making any changes necessary to ensure the integrity of the process. The Building Division is focused on providing exceptional customer service to the public and customers, with demonstrated positive results.

"The Building Official, William Ondulich, has resigned from employment with the City effective September 28, 2015."

“We're certainly looking into how it happened and what was done incorrectly,” said Largo Mayor Woody Brown.

Hall was placed on paid administrative leave the day we interviewed him for allegedly refusing to do an inspection.

He hopes speaking out will help the city get it right.

“You're endangering people's lives. You're costing contractors and citizens money. And it's just not right for the citizens of Largo or the contractors who try to work in Largo,” Hall said.

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