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York Co. Council sometimes quick to judge staff's performance

At a York County Council meeting last month, a business owner cast the county's planning and development staff as renegade authoritarians, setting deadlines for compliance, shutting down his business without explanation and taking months to permit new work on the property.

His complaints prompted some council member to turn a critical eye toward the county staff.

"This is not a comforting thing to hear," Chairman Britt Blackwell said. The council's goal is making York County more business friendly, he said, "and it doesn't sound like it's happening based on your experience."

Other council members agreed.

But at the next council meeting, staff members told a far different story. The business had never resolved a fire safety issue from more than a year ago. And about a week after county officials had the power source disconnected because of safety concerns, they returned to find the owner powering the building with a generator.

Some council members recanted their criticisms of the county staff, while others launched a debate over whether the council should publicly side with citizens airing gripes before hearing their own employees' side of the story.

Michael Thomas, of Scroungers Creative Studios on Filbert Highway in York, told the council at its January meeting that he had tried for 10 months to get a permit to complete interior renovations on his business.

Thomas contacted all the council members, and with encouragement from Councilman Eric Winstead, Thomas was added to the agenda.

Thomas' business is in Winstead's district.

A do-it-yourself business owner who says he uses metal to make art, Thomas saw the old building more than two years ago and "fell in love....I saw that building and thought, 'One day it's going to be a shiny penny,'" he said.

More than two years later, and after several exchanges with county planning staff, Thomas said York County is the worst place he has ever done business.

At the January council meeting, Thomas criticized county employees for putting up "hurdles" instead of helping him open his business. Staff members he worked with "ought to be kicked out because, as a private employer, these people would not work for me," he said.

One by one York County Council members responded, some sympathizing with Thomas and criticizing the staff, some remaining neutral.

Councilman Curwood Chappell said in his 20 years on the council he's "cleaned up" the staff and manager "three times" and the need has come again.

"If you don't clean house, council, it's going to be disastrous!" he said.

After learning Thomas was in the military, Chappell lamented that men go to war to give others freedom and have to "come back here to his own country and find out that he ought'a been shooting here."

Councilman Bruce Henderson apologized to Thomas for having been run "through the ringer," but gave county staff the "benefit of the doubt," adding that regardless of the reasons, "it should have never went this far."

Councilman Eric Winstead avoided taking sides but said, "10 months is unacceptable."

Two stories

Thomas' dispute with the county centers on his building's electric power system.

He told the council that the county staff first indicated problems with his electrical set-up last year. He met with staff members in April, he said, and they gave him a deadline to address the violations. Before the deadline passed, they shut down his business without explanation, he said.

But staff members later told the council that they first notified him of the violation in January 2010. When Thomas first moved into the building, a fire safety official noted the problems, and the planning department issued Thomas a permit to for the electrical work.

The county's mistake, County Manager Jim Baker said, was that no one followed up with Thomas until more than a year later to ensure the work had been done.

Thomas said last week that after moving into the building, he did what the county told him to do at the time, which was remove lights and extension cords. He didn't know he had a pending violation and wondered why, if he did, the county would have allowed him to have his power turned on.

During a routine check for expired permits, the staff realized Thomas's permit,which had a year-long expiration date, had lapsed and he never requested an inspection, Dave Pettine, the county's planning and development director, said Friday.

A new inspection revealed the problems the county identified were not addressed, so the county issued a notice with a 30-day deadline to comply. When the deadline passed without progress, the power was disconnected, Pettine said. Disconnecting power - a rare response--usually means a serious safety issue, he said.

The county also cited Thomas for an unsafe building and for using it as a scrap yard, a use not permitted in the zoning. Thomas still contends that he was using the space as an art center.

A week later, inspectors discovered Thomas was operating off of a generator and ordered him to vacate the premises.

Since then, Thomas and his lawyer have been working with the county on getting his site and building plans approved and to get permits for new renovations. The plans were approved last month, but before issuing a permit, the county is awaiting proof that Thomas has a licensed contractor lined up to do the work.

Respecting the staff

and citizens

When asked last week whether working on a renovation of that scope for the first time overwhelmed him, Thomas said no, that he has 18 years of construction experience and that he'd never heard from anyone else of a project going so badly.

He didn't find many staff members helpful, he said.

"If you can figure it out yourself, you're doing good, because you're not going to get any direction from them."

Pettine suggested Friday the department can make two changes to avoid similar situations in the future: a shorter expiration date and tracking permits that are issued to correct violations. Typically, the county knows work is complete because at that time, the permit holder is required to ask for an inspection of the work, he said. The county also lacks the man power to check in on every permit to ensure work is underway, he said.

But at the meeting, a debate was unfolding about how the council should address the staff's concerns while treating staff fairly.

After hearing the staff's side of the story, Councilman David Bowman said Thomas threw the planning department "under the bus" as did some council members. That's not how he manages people, he later said - he would take his time to get a better understanding of the situation, he said.

Respecting the staff means they'll help him solve problems for his constituents, he said.

"People can live in a fantasy world if they want. Ultimately, people mow the grass and get our convenience centers cleaned out and that's our staff- that's not me."

Baker told council that the incident was an example of why he prefers to handle complaints "in house," where staff can determine what really happened and give an update. Too much emphasis on the staff's alleged shortcomings - especially false ones - may give the public the wrong impression, he said.

"If we drop the ball, we should be held accountable.

But it's counter productive to hold people accountable in public if they actually didn't do anything wrong," Baker said. "There are two things you can't expect (employees) to give you: respect and loyalty - You have to earn that."

Councilman Bump Roddey said Thursday that public criticism could damage employee morale while encouraging more complaints. While some complaints are legitimate, by openly criticizing staff, the council "kind of invited people to come air some dirty laundry or attack our staff, and some people are taking advantage of it," he said.

Henderson apologized to the staff after hearing their account, claiming that "other situations" made him want to give the man "the upper hand."

He said Friday that there are still problems with the county departments including delays and oversights. The staff letting a year lapse before addressing Thomas's situation "was a problem," he said. "It should have been handled a long time ago."

It's "human" to sympathize with citizens, he added, and called Bowman's charge "out of hand." Still, after what happened, he plans on giving both sides the benefit of the doubt and being "neutral until we get into the facts."

Negotiating the line between staff and residents is complicated, Blackwell said, and his obligation is to residents first. Whether the complaint is legitimate is less important, he said.

"Certainly whenever someone calls you, they feel like it's a legitimate complaint....We work for the citizens. We work for the public - that's the bottom line," he said.

The staff must learn to "take it on the chin" when dealing with residents' concerns, he said. "We have to be big girls and boys and rise above it."

As of Thursday, Thomas had another bone to pick with the council and said he'd be back in front of them soon - he hadn't heard about staff's presentation, he said, which upset him, because no one on the staff, or the council, called him.

"It's like having a court date and not being told to be there," he said.