Update on City Building Department

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 12, 2021

City Manager Dale Martin

Fernandina Beach City Manager Dale Martin provided a second public update on Building Department issues to the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) at a workshop held on July 6, 2021.  Unlike the previous workshop held on April 6, 2021, during which 21 speakers aired their concerns and frustrations in dealing with the City’s Building Department, there appeared to be little public interest in receiving this report.  The only contractor in attendance was City Commissioner David Sturges. The Chamber of Commerce, whose survey had sparked the earlier controversy, did not appear to be in attendance.

Martin restated many of the points he had previously reported to the FBCC via memo and again orally at their April 20, 2021 meeting  in addition to providing some updates.

Commissioners agreed that there does not appear to be a need to create a new citizen board to hear appeals for relief from Building Official decisions.  They concluded that such appeals were within the scope of the existing Code Enforcement and Appeals Board (CEAB).  This is a 7-member board with two alternate members.

Mayor Mike Lednovich noted that in the intervening 90 days since the original workshop, public concern seems to have dissipated. He agreed with a comment from Commissioner Bradley Bean that perhaps the name of the CEAB could be changed to better reflect the scope that already appears in the CEAB’s charge:  to hear appeals of Building Official decisions.  Commissioners also called for a reexamination of backgrounds of CEAB members to insure that building and design specialists serve on the board.  A revised ordinance will be brought to the FBCC in August.

Work on a customer satisfaction survey is underway to be included in permit applications and on the city website.  The City will also attempt to streamline processes or eliminate the need to permit  small projects such as backyard sheds.  

Commissioners decided not to pursue body cameras for Building Inspectors.  Other than the expense, they expressed concerns about charges of invasion of privacy from property owners.

Martin indicated that while the City is attempting to recruit a new Building Official, a contract Building Official is in place.  Process reviews will await new leadership.  He added that in an attempt to address timeliness concerns he plans to reestablish the Community Development Department as the Community Services Department.  This is an effort to bring planners and building staff together with Code Enforcement to speed the review process.  The plan will be formalized within 30 days.

Commissioner David Sturges supported this effort, reporting that Building gets blamed for all delays, whether the delay results from Planning or Building.  Vice Mayor Len Kreger agreed and stated his belief that concurrency of review by all parties would speed the process.

Permit and hearing fees will be approved by the FBCC as part of the budget process.

Martin also reported that neither Nassau County staff nor County Commissioners are interested in pursuing the combining of City and County Building Departments at this time.

Cindy Jacoby

In order to address problems perceived in customer relations, consultant Cindy Jacoby of Biz Help spent time with Building Department staff both in house and in the field. She has assisted the City in the past by facilitating FBCC visioning sessions.

Jacoby approached the problem of customer relations as a customer herself as well as through interviews and observations of City staff and operations and discussions with members of the local building community.  She attempted to identify causes for what appears to be a  growing mistrust of the Building Department as expressed in the Chamber of Commerce survey and the April 6 workshop.  

She said that although the Building Official was respected for his knowledge and for getting back to callers quickly, his interpretations differed sometimes from previous City Building Officials and also County Building Officials.  She noted that both staff and the building community have had to deal with five Building Officials over the past five years.

Jacoby said that Building Official Stephen Beckman took his job of enforcing code more seriously than some of his predecessors, leading to conflict with contractors and architects.  “Contractors went from someone who was lax in enforcing code to someone who was strict and got a lot of whiplash from that,” she said.  But contractors admitted that after discussion, Beckman could sometimes be persuaded to change his interpretation.

While she found the City inspectors to be professional and flexible, she noted that some builders view their relationship with the Building Department as a “them vs. us” contest.  She attributed some of this to the culture of the building community and City staff.

She found the counter staff of the Building Department to be a close knit, supportive group.  However, their morale is low, partly attributable to an uptick in negative calls following media accounts of problems with the Building Department.  She noted that one of the staff members suggested that the negative comments that followed release of the Chamber of Commerce survey, seemed to give callers “a license to be mean.” Jacoby said that the counter staff must work amid constant interruptions from people wandering into City Hall.  They are required to perform City receptionist services by advising and directing the public to the proper office.  They routinely handle calls and visitors with questions that are unrelated to Building Department services.

Problems about delays and nit-picking were also voiced by contractors.  She also noted that because the Chamber survey did not distinguish between the Planning Department and the Building Department, most of the complaints were leveled at Building, when timeliness and other issues were problems in both areas.  She believed that by recombining these departments both organizationally and physically efficiencies could speed the permit process.

“The [permit] submission process has been hastily put together and does not take advantage of the features provided by the software,” she said.  “Instead, the software was reengineered to go back to the way permitting was done previously.”  She said that is a known issue which is being studied for improvement.  “There is a lot of frustration for contractors, and it is almost impossible for Joe Citizen to navigate that system.”

She reinforced Martin’s point that right now it is not always clear when permits are required and when inspections are needed. There is a lot of jargon on forms, which baffles applicants.

In conclusion, Jacoby said she did not find one, overarching issue.  But she did find “a ton of small things that added up and came to a head with the Chamber survey.”  She said that the public perception is that the Building Department is awful.  “Rightly or wrongly,” she said, “there is a big public relations problem and it will take strong leadership to get out of that hole.”

She suggested upgrading the system, insuring better communication, forging better relationships between Planning and Building, and even working with the County Building Official for better interpretations of code.

She believed that many of the problems were rooted in the culture of the Building Department.  Instead of examining the basis for customer concerns, there is a suspicion that customers “are trying to get away with something.”  She traced some of this back to the mission statement of the Department, which does not include customer relations.  She said that changing culture will take time and require strong leadership,  but that through employee evaluations change can be brought about.  She advised that City staff should assume positive intent on the part of customers and default to the minimum when changes to plans or projects are needed to insure safety.

She also recommended:

  • Updating the Building Department’s mission;
  • Assigning a staff member to walk applicants through the application process;
  • Rebuilding a positive relationship with the Chamber of Commerce;
  • Solving the “City Hall receptionist” problem.

Commissioners listened closely to her report.  However, several commented afterwards that the primary mission of the Building Department is to insure that buildings are safe.  Jacoby agreed.  “We don’t want happy people with buildings falling down.”

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Tom Smith
Tom Smith(@tom-s)
2 years ago

Glossed over was the topic of County involvement. Did the City officially ask the County to take over the process or is it a money issue that the City can’t let go of? Typically when a county takes over a city operation the staff is absorbed, consistency is maintained throughout the county and resources are widely distributed. After all, the citizens just want safety, fairness and consistency.