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Update: County Responds To Chrobocinski Letter To Fellow Councilors On Code Woes

on December 4, 2017 - 6:18pm

Council Chair David Izraelevitz

UPDATE: At the time the news story at the bottom of this page was published this morning, the Los Alamos Daily Post had not contacted the County for a response. Immediately below are statements from Council Chair David Izraelevitz and County Manager Harry Burgess.

Statement from Council Chair David Izraelevitz:

Speaking as an individual Councilor, I feel it is appropriate to respond to the recent letter that James Chrobocinski sent to the Council about his private business interactions with Community Development Department staff and the County’s Fire Marshal. I was disappointed that James shared that letter with the Los Alamos Daily Post and asked them to publish it, an action that blurred his personal and Council roles. I feel that leaving his allegations unanswered is shirking a responsibility, and would not be conducive to improving County government and our relationship between staff and the community.

As has been reported previously by news media, the Human Resources Division has opened an investigation into claims that James made last week in public that he was being singled out because of his outspoken stance as a Councilor about code enforcement. As far as I have seen, these are claims that he has not substantiated with any facts, but I welcome the results of the HR investigation and any findings or areas of improvement that are the result of their interviews. Until then, I would hope that all parties involved would refrain from making further allegations and comments to the news media. With an on-going investigation, this places the County in a precarious situation now of feeling compelled to comment publicly.

Again, I have seen no basis for James’ allegations that he is personally being singled out. After his contractor failed to pull necessary permits to do renovation work on the former Bandelier Grill building, staff did what we expect them to do. They went to the construction site to investigate the situation and issued a “Stop Work” order until deficiencies could be corrected and the proper permits obtained. I am surprised that James insists that he and his contractor didn’t think any kind of permit was needed. A licensed contractor is hired because that person is a trained professional in the construction business who is expected to know the relevant County code, assess what is being requested for the job, including general assumptions about the age of a building and possible hazards. If unsure about the Code, a contractor should visit with CDD staff in advance. Frankly, everything that has been filed to date has been done after the fact, and so citing project delays and blaming CDD seems to me to be a wound that was self-inflicted. We all agree that ignorance of Code is never a defense for the County to overlook an illegal activity.

From what I have been able to observe, things were moving forward and those involved were working diligently to find a way to work through a situation where the contractor had prematurely began operations. While I appreciate that James has withdrawn his lawsuit, litigating his concerns instead via the media is not useful. I see the current situation as one that was precipitated by the actions of his contractor whether or not at his direction, and one that could have public health safety consequences that remain to be seen. I support the County staff, the actions that have been taken, and their work to try and move this forward to some resolution that will allow the work on the building to continue. I would ask the community in the interim to refrain from jumping to conclusions without having facts from both sides.

County Manager Harry Burgess

Statement from Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess:

I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the information stated in Mr. Chrobocinski’s letter to better clarify or refute claims leveled against the County and our staff:

First, our Community Development Department has been working to improve the permitting process as one of their goals. I acknowledge concerns within the community that our County Code can be challenging to understand when it comes to permitting requirements. Building officials should assist whenever questions arise about an interpretation. There is always room for improvement and CDD is working to try and consistently set forth better interpretation of standards.

However, with that point in mind, we do expect that a licensed contractor – especially one who has worked on other jobs within the County requiring similar permits – would seek out CDD staff before taking on the responsibilities associated with the type of work to be done on a building. Permitting requirements are there for public safety reasons, and I will continue to support and defend our staff’s actions to enforce our Code. We are bound to do so – not only for County standards, but because of New Mexico requirements. Asbestos abatement is a serious health concern for those working on a job and any member of the public who may be near a construction site. 

Mr. Chrobocinski has continued to assert that he is being targeted because of his stance and public speech regarding code enforcement. As previously noted in media reports, I take this allegation seriously and our Human Resources staff is performing an investigation. At this time, however, I have not found any evidence to support claims that County staff has taken excessive or egregious steps in this situation. Whenever the building officials observe construction work being undertaken at any site – commercial or residential – they are obligated to step in and investigate. In this case, although it is not part of our process, we actually took additional steps and set up the main point of contact with Fire Marshal Wetteland, in an effort to try and negate conflict between Code Enforcement staff and Mr. Chrobocinski. 

With respect to comments made by Mr. Chrobocinski alleging that CDD staff gave conflicting information, or, that they were not forthcoming with information over a period of three weeks, I would reiterate that the reason we require a licensed contractor to initiate the permitting process before beginning work on a project is to ensure that there is a clear understanding, documented and adequately reviewed by staff and the contractor, to set a path forward for the project to be completed without costly delays. State law further requires that an asbestos inspection be completed a minimum of ten days before applying for a permit. 

Neither the contractor nor Mr. Chrobocinski contacted CDD about this project before beginning the work, and so his assertion that the County is causing him hardship because of delays should be a burden he shares with his contractor. County records show that the same contractor has obtained three demolition permits during the past two years, and therefore there is no reason to believe that this work was done without such a permit due to a lack of knowledge of the requirements.

I will continue to be actively involved in resolving this matter as quickly as possible. If there are improvements to be made to the permitting process or related areas under my purview, I will proactively address them. The Fire Marshal and CDD staff will continue to work with Mr. Chrobocinski and his contractor on this particular situation with the Pig + Fig Café, but without compromising local and state requirements. We must ensure that the end project is in compliance – it’s our job and our responsibility.

Chrobocinski Writes Fellow Councilors On Code Woes

County Councilor James Chrobocinski

Staff Report

Los Alamos County Councilor James Chrobocinski has written to his fellow Councilors concerning his issues with the County’s Community Development Department and Los Alamos Fire Marshal Jeff Wettleland pertaining to a White Rock property purchased by Chrobocinski.

The property is the former Bandelier Grill building at 11 Sherwood Blvd, which he is renovating to be the future home of the Pig + Fig Café.

In a recent tort claim filed with the County, Chrobocinski claims that Wetteland and Chief Building Inspector Michael Arellano came into the building shortly after a suspended ceiling and some temporary walls were removed. He said Arellano and Wetteland told him he needed a demolition permit for the work he already completed, and the building was “red-tagged”.

Chrobocinski stressed that he was writing as a community member trying to ensure the Council is aware of issues the community is facing and requested that Council members not respond to him due to his position as a councilor. The letter said that while he remains convinced many of the permitting issues he has been dealing with lately are personally directly at him, he understands that “proving motive and intent would be very difficult if not impossible”.

“Therefore, I am dropping the issue and will instead focus on trying to fix the inherent problems that so many, many home and business owners are going through in our community. Through this process I have been contacted over and over again by people in our community who have faced or are currently facing very similar issues,” Chrobocinski’s letter stated.

He said the biggest problem he sees is the inability of those involved in permitting to give thorough and accurate information up front. He said the problems involve the Fire Marshal's office as well as the Community Development Department and that he is providing details of his situation simply “to give context” to the problems the community faces as a whole. He added that he is not asking for any intervention in his particular situation.

“The best analogy I heard about this is that it is like being told to bring them a rock. Once a rock is delivered they are told to then bring them another rock, and then another rock, and then another rock, and so on. This brings endless delays and creates huge amounts of frustration and anger,” the letter said.

He said in his situation, he was told by Arellano to apply for a demolition permit and that it would be a quick and easy "over-the-counter" permit. He called this “Rock One” and said he and his contractor were both surprised that the County wanted a demolition permit for removing the things they needed to remove in order to prepare for renovations.

“It was not something I had heard of before and I could not find any information about what the specific requirements are that trigger the need for a demolition permit. When we applied for the permit they would not handle it over the counter as previously stated, Chrobocinski said.

“Several days later we were told they wanted building drawings – Rock Two. This was especially frustrating since we had asked for past drawings from the county and were told they did not exist which through a public information request later proved to be false. I ended up having to pay someone to recreate drawings that the county already had,” he said. “We delivered those drawings and were told nearly a week later (over two weeks into the process) that they now wanted an asbestos report on material that no longer existed – Rock Three,” the letter continued. “They eventually decided I could test material that has nothing to do with the demo permit. While illogical and expensive, it was at least a path forward.”

Chrobocinski said he has now had the testing done on samples that will not be removed and is awaiting the results.

“It has now been three weeks and we are still waiting on the report and the permit. I am hoping this is the last ‘rock’ they request. If we had been told everything the first day this could have been completely resolved in 7 to 10 days. I do not think those in government understand how expensive these delays are. I have calculated that it costs me $427 for every day that we wait,” the letter continued.

Chrobocinski said the second problem is the lack of information available to the public. He said he has repeatedly asked to be shown something that tells him or anyone else when a demolition permit is needed and what is required to obtain that permit.

“They have not been able to produce anything and actually gave conflicting information to the County manager. The only thing that has been provided is a vague statement from the Chapter 10 (of the Los Alamos Municipal Code) preamble saying that any modification or alteration requires a permit. That obviously seems to give them way too much authority. So, we need a permit to patch a small hole, change an outlet cover, replace a door knob? According to what has been provided the answer would be yes. Nothing that gives specific information about a demolition permit seems to exist,” he said.

He said cited examples of the lack of information available to the public, saying that at 10 a.m., Dec. 1 he went into the CDD and asked the lady at the front desk for information as to whether he needed a permit to paint stucco on a commercial building and information on how he would know if he needed a demolition permit to do some renovation.

“She stated verbatim, ‘We are updating our forms, so we don't have that information available at this time’. This was the exact same answer I received when I was trying to apply for a permit to build a garage in June of this year. So, for at least the last six months the County has been unable to provide permitting requirement information to the public because they are ‘updating their forms’,” he said.

“It seems that we have a huge bureaucratic quagmire in our permitting department that I, along with many people in the community are incredibly frustrated with. The lack of information, communication, and foresight by this Department causes a great deal of anger because it directly and seriously affects people’s pocketbooks and creates a strong sense of dissatisfaction and distrust in our local government,” the letter concludes. “I am going to drop the retaliation complaints as I realize that I am in an unwinnable position. However, I will continue this fight on behalf of the community as a whole to end the frustrating and costly incompetence from all involved in building permits within Los Alamos County.”

Chrobocinski has filed several requests for public records related to the current renovation project. Among them are requests for documentation such as code, law or statute that gives the fire marshal the authority to enforce building codes that are unrelated to fire safety, authority to issue a “stop work order” and a citation for non-safety-related permit requirements, the authority to direct the assistant fire marshal to monitor and/or enforce non-fire-related building codes, the authority to require asbestos testing to be done as a requirement for a building permit.

He has also asked for information on why a demolition permit is required for renovation of a commercial building that is not being demolished and why asbestos testing is required when a building is not suspected to contain regulated asbestos material.

Chrobocinski also has asked for information on what gives the County manager authority and/or responsibility to oversee the fire marshal’s duties and tasks and what responsibilities the County manager has to prevent abuse of authority by staff under his direction.