“I’m very concerned about the city going back to the way it was,” says Geoff Perkins, a board member of the Builders and Remodelers Association of Greater Ann Arbor. He and other members complain that before Welton was hired as the city’s chief development officer in 2010, they got little response when they protested arbitrary decisions by city inspectors. The situation got so bad, says Perkins, that frustrated builders used “comment time” at city council meetings to vent their complaints. In contrast, they say, Welton returned calls quickly, and took action when needed, even if it meant overruling his inspectors.
“It wasn’t that Ralph was giving builders something extra,” says contractor David Haig. “He was–you’ll never hear this again–a reasonable bureaucrat. He would answer emails on weekends. He was extremely responsive and very committed to his job.” The builders were so happy that in 2011 their organization gave Welton its “Pillar Award.”
The current sizzling development climate has both builders and building inspectors hopping. “For the past three years, we’ve been one of the busiest if not the busiest building department in the state,” says city administrator Steve Powers.
Welton, Powers says, was suspended and accepted a negotiated departure after an outside review confirmed problems with what the administrator calls “checks and balances,” including tracking payments and documenting inspections. A subordinate, John Swantek, was also suspended over the same issues.
A memo that Powers sent to city council, and that was subsequently published in the Ann Arbor News, is feeding the builders’ anxiety. The administrator wrote that the “environment in the building department” was such that “compliance and coordination with the city regulatory responsibility appears to be less important than moving projects forward.” The investigation, Powers wrote, revealed that “inspections or re-inspections of approximately 80 properties were necessary.”
That sounds like a lot, but builder Steve Lucchesi scoffs. “I say to that–hogwash! They do hundreds of inspections a day.” Powers says that the reinspections have all been completed and “no immediate life/safety issues” were found.
Ryan Stanton, the News’ ace city hall reporter, published documents indicating that Welton defied a request by his supervisor, community services area administrator Sumedh Bahl, to reinspect certain properties. The removals of Welton and Swantek has triggered “speculation, gossip, and conspiracy theories,” says councilmember Sabra Briere. But there was “nothing criminal” about the departures, Powers says. After an extended paid suspension, Welton retired effective May 7. Swantek was fired on May for having a gun on city property. Powers says it was found when AAPD officers escorted him to his car in a city lot on N. Main.
Welton both supervised the inspectors and acted as the city’s “building official,” the final authority on whether contractors’ work met standards set down in the Michigan Building Code. Although several hundred pages long (“it’s like reading a stock prospectus,” says builder Joe O’Neal), the code still leaves plenty of gray areas. Builders soon form opinions about which of the city’s dozen inspectors–all men–are code experts, who’s more flexible, and who particularly relishes his power. One builder who asked to remain anonymous recalls a (now retired) inspector who informed him that he couldn’t pour a concrete slab because the forms “didn’t match the drawing the architect had. It was a generic drawing of a concrete slab.” The inspector ordered him to get a letter from the architect before proceeding. “I and the concrete guys are standing there staring,” recalls this individual. “He got in his vehicle and shouted, ‘OK, you can call me a prick, because I can’t hear you!'”
Many builders believe that unhappy underlings did whatever they could to get Welton out–but none of the present or past inspectors the Observer contacted would confirm that (“We’re not allowed to talk to the press,” veteran employee Vern Pappas explains). Powers won’t comment on whether he or Bahl heard complaints from disaffected inspectors–but does say “there’s been no request to me from inspectors that Mr. Welton should leave.”
There’s a stormy history between the builders and the city; a decade ago, the organization sued, alleging that the city had dipped into building fees to help balance the general fund. Builders the Observer spoke to give good marks to Craig Strong, who’s been serving as the city’s building official under a contract with consulting firm Carlisle-Wortman Associates. But Bahl is now supervising the inspectors, and builders feel he lacks the experience to know when they’ve overstepped. “Sumedh’s a nice guy, and I’m sure he does an awesome [job] with running the water plant, but he doesn’t know the code,” says one.
In May, Bahl was in the process of filling two open inspector’s positions. In July, the department will add a full-time plan reviewer position; that will let the inspectors spend more time in the field.
The builders also want to see a new permanent building official–and Powers says they’ll get one. “We’ll be looking for someone who has [both] technical knowledge and the ability to communicate,” he says. “Slipping backwards is not acceptable.”