Holmes Beach Mayor Carmel Monti announced Nov. 29 his selection of Tom O’Brien as an interim supervisor in the city’s building department.
At the commission work session, Monti recommended O’Brien be hired on a four-month contract to allow him and the commission time to evaluate the building department situation before the permanent position is filled.
With Commission Chair Jean Peelen absent, Vice Chair Judy Titsworth polled the commissioners for their opinions, and commissioners Marvin Grossman and Pat Morton agreed.
“I think it’s a very smart idea,” Morton said of O’Brien’s hiring on an interim basis.
“I think it’s a good direction,” Commissioner David Zaccagnino said. “I think we do need an interim building inspector and building official to head that department.”
Zaccagnino, however, questioned whether O’Brien was properly certified as a building official and able to sign off on permits. He said by checking the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation website, he was not able to find O’Brien as a building official or as having taken the required exam.
O’Brien is an architect in Florida and California, according to his resume. He also lists Florida building official and structural inspector credentials.
O’Brien said he took the test in 1986, and is exempt under state law from any new examination.
The building official test was one of the requirements for his past employment as a Manatee County deputy building official, he added.
According to his resume, O’Brien worked for the county 1986-1990, and has operated O’Brien Architects, P.A., 1990 to present.
“He’s actually more qualified as an architect, and also an engineer,” Titsworth said.
Zaccagnino also said he was concerned with a possible ethics issue, saying he’d heard Titsworth retained O’Brien as a consultant in her election campaign.
Titsworth said she hired O’Brien as a fact finder, and asked if she needed to recuse herself from voting on the matter.
Attending the meeting for city attorney Patricia Petruff, Stephen Dye, also of the Dye, Deitrich Petruff and St. Paul, P.L., recommended his law firm research O’Brien’s exemption from the building official exam as well as the campaign issue.
He said the interim position being considered is “basically just engaging services — just providing the services of building official” but, “to cover all bases” he recommended the mayor make the decision subject to the commission’s vote at a regular meeting.
The commission tabled the matter for its Dec. 11 meeting.
Further discussion on the building official arose out of commissioner’s reports and public comment.
Resident John Hutcherson of Gulf Drive voiced support for the O’Brien recommendation. He favored the city moving forward on the hiring, saying the city’s building official John Fernandez could sign permits until Zaccagnino’s questions were resolved.
Greg Ross of Ross Built Construction Co. said he objected to a fourth person being added to the building department, and he saw no reason to add to the department since the city has caught up with the summer backlog.
O’Brien will be joining recently hired full-time electrical engineer David Greene part-time building official Fernandez, who works on a contract, not as an employee. Retired public works superintendent Joe Duennes is no longer working but remains on the city’s payroll until February.
Monti pointed to several reasons for the O’Brien decision: Fernandez is not interested in the supervisor’s job, and Greene is at least three months away from certification. He said the city needs to be responsive to residents who want a building official who can properly interpret building laws.
In the past year, residents have complained, focus groups have studied and reports have been written about the department being lax on building inspections and interpreting the codes in favor of builders who develop investment properties — those that create excessive trash, noise and parking problems.
“I would like to get this done as soon as possible,” Grossman said of the O’Brien hiring. “There’s a lot of building out there. Who’s minding the store?”
After the meeting, Monti said there will be further consideration on whether the building supervisor also will take on the code enforcement and public works departments or whether the current department heads will report to the mayor’s office.
Duennes headed the city’s building, public works and code enforcement for more than 15 years.
A resident, architect and member of the building code focus group, Terry Parker, told commissioners “it’s like the fox watching the hen house” to have a public works supervisor oversee a building department.
After the meeting, Monti said that he and Petruff will be drafting the interim contract for O’Brien, and he will start work as the building supervisor as soon as possible.
In the meantime, the commission will be looking at the possibility of a moratorium.
On that possibility, Titsworth said the city is trying to avoid it, but the commission “needs to do something” to deter projects that displace whole blocks of residents with rentals such as one proposed on 77th Street that includes the re-development of seven duplexes.
A commission work session to discuss the moratorium is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, at city hall, 5801 Marina Drive.