A work session for the City Commission of Arkansas City was a standing-room-only event March 17 at City Hall.
The study session was called, in part, to discuss the code enforcement process in the city.
City Manager Nick Hernandez offered an organizational change as a means of alleviating some of the “communications issues” that have arisen.
“I’m proposing that we create a Community Development Director position,” Hernandez said, adding that he would fill that position himself, at least in the short term.
The organizational change would see code enforcement come out from under the purview of the public works director and create a brand-new chain of command under Hernandez.
It also would provide a layer of city planning that is not currently being handled by a single designated individual.
“Being a development director is something that I actually handle pretty substantially (now),” Hernandez said. “I spend half my time right now dealing with development issues.”
The measure, along with the full implementation of Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) meetings — which serve as a sort of planning review process — should help to ease some of the turbulence seen under the current structure, Hernandez indicated.
The planning phase of any commercial structure would be discussed at TAC meetings, which would include the building official, development director, and other key local officials, such as the fire marshal, police chief and representatives of utility companies.
The position of community development director will be filled by Hernandez for the time being, but eventually would see the addition of one new position within the city personnel structure.
“It seems like we’ve had some problems in the recent past,” said Mayor Duane Oestmann. “Maybe this will help.”
Commissioner Jay Warren asked how the city could prevent code enforcement officials from changing code instructions from one visit to another at a construction site — a complaint that has been voiced at recent commission meetings.
“I don’t think you’ll ever solve that problem without a comprehensive inspection,” Hernandez said.
Code officials are human and are not able to see everything all at once, he said. As new issues are exposed during construction, additional changes may have to occur when they are seen.
“If it’s interpretation of code, there’s an appeals process. If you don’t agree with the building inspector’s interpretation, you can take it to the Building Trades Board,” Hernandez explained.
However, one commissioner questioned the process currently in place for construction projects on privately owned properties.
“Why should the city be my mom or dad and tell me what I can do with my property?” asked Commissioner Dan Jurkovich.
“It’s a matter of public safety. There are things that have been done in the past that didn’t work right,” replied Commissioner Charles Tweedy III.
“I would want it up to code,” Jurkovich said. “But does everybody?” Oestmann asked.
Questions also were raised about whether there is a mandatory requirement for engineering studies on renovations.
While some in the room disagreed about whether an engineering study or architectural design was necessary, Hernandez showed a state statute that appeared to require design by professionals on any property that will be open to the public.
“That’s state law, not Ark City law,” he said.
“Who’s going to absorb that cost?” asked one of the individuals in the crowd.
Jurkovich asked why he couldn’t provide a plan that he had drawn out himself.
“The state statute,” Hernandez replied. The statute — K.S.A. 74-738 — calls for plans to be created by a technical professional.
“We have a communications issue,” Oestmann said. “Hopefully, this will solve it — maybe not all of it.” Hernandez agreed.
“I think this could work, but I’d like to see some kind of standard procedure,” Jurkovich said.
The city recently added to its website a list of prerequisites for those looking to do any construction work on a commercial or residential structure.
The TAC planning meeting would help those involved to find issues before they occurred in the construction process.
“How many communities use this process?” Warren asked.
“I can’t tell you for sure, (but) some communities use an architectural review process,” Hernandez answered.
“Do you really think this will work?” asked property owner Holli Pool.
Last year, Pool invested in property located at 1826 N. Summit St., on which he had intentions of remodeling and opening a business.
“For six months, we’ve been told, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that…’” she said. “What is the city requiring and what is the code?”
“In this process, you get together once,” Hernandez said of the TAC review process.
“I’m just saying, I don’t believe it will happen,” Pool said.
Pool’s husband, John, serves as the general contractor on the project. He said that he had the building inspector visit the site when they began the process, but it didn’t help.
“We don’t trust these people,” Holli Pool said of the code inspector and several other city employees.
“I am sorry (that it has been this way),” Oestmann said. “Do you think the new process would (have helped)?”
The Pools both agreed that the TAC meeting might have saved them time and money.
Pool’s husband said they didn’t want to be the crusaders for change, but they also didn’t want anyone else to have to go through what they had experienced.
Citizen Jim Sybrant said that the biggest issue with the Building Trades Advisory Board, code inspector and city government in general was that “everything is done verbally.”
“If a policeman pulls me over and gives me a ticket for speeding, I know exactly what he said I did,” Sybrant said.
He went on to claim the International Code Cycle is a political issue.
“I’ve owned over 300 properties in Ark City — I know what I’m doing,” Sybrant said. “I want the city government to get … behind (those) that are improving the city.”
Sybrant also said he would like to see the Building Trades Board reorganized.
The board currently consists of nine contractors in varying construction professions, although Sybrant claimed it has 11 or 12 members.
Sybrant said he would like to see the board organized with only a few contractors and the majority of the board seats held by citizen laymen.