Whistleblower takes aim at city’s building official
September 29, 2010 · Updated 1:54 PM
Langley’s building official was accused of padding his bills and getting paid for playing basketball and Frisbee while on the city’s dime, according to a whistleblower complaint released by the city on Friday.
The complaint also questioned why the building official — who was working under a contract for the city — was billing Langley for so much work when building applications had “dropped off considerably” in 2009.
Other city records, also released late last week, show the contracted building official was paid $93,420 in 2008 and earned more than $259,000 over the past three years.
Mayor Paul Samuelson and the contractor, now a city employee, vigorously denied the allegations of overpayment on Monday.
Bob Snyder said he properly billed the city for his work and, if anything, worked more hours on city business than what his invoices showed. Snyder first contracted with the city in March 1995 to serve as Langley’s building official, reviewing plans and conducting building inspections. His duties were later expanded to include technical help on the city’s computer system. During his time as a contractor, Snyder was paid between $37 to $60 per hour.
“I put in more hours than have ever been reflected,” Snyder said.
“He didn’t bill for that,” Samuelson said. “I am clear that Bob Snyder never charged the city for playing basketball.”
Snyder reported directly to the mayor during the time frame covered by the whistleblower complaint. Samuelson said the allegations raised by the whistleblower were properly reviewed, and the complaints were dismissed by the mayor on April 29, with Samuelson saying that nothing “improper” had occurred.
The whistleblower complaint was filed with the city on Nov. 6 by Mary Jo McArdle, who was then serving as the city’s records clerk. McArdle retired earlier this year.
In the complaint, McArdle provided a seven-page laundry list of concerns and more than 50 questions that centered on Snyder’s record-keeping, the amount of time he spent on inspections and the accuracy of his work.
Many of McArdle’s concerns centered on money, and the complaint was filed during the time when city employees were worried about budget cuts and furloughs.
“In the current economic climate building applications (= revenue) have dropped off considerably. The building official, however, maintains his same office hours and continues to bill the city for his time,” McArdle said in her whistleblower memo. “What is he doing? Is this reasonable?”
McArdle also asked why the city was paying a contracted employee for his professional training and providing Snyder with an office in city hall.
McArdle could not be reached for additional comment on Monday. But in other documents released by the city on Friday, it is clear that she became frustrated with what she saw as the city’s slow response in investigating her complaint.
City regulations that cover whistleblower reports require that investigations of improper government actions be completed within 30 days of an employee’s complaint.
According to records released by the city, however, the administration did not begin to investigate McArdle’s complaint until late December, more than a month after the whistleblower complaint was filed.
In a memo sent to McArdle on Dec. 30, Samuelson said the city would conduct a thorough assessment on the job of the building official, and that Planning Director Larry Cort would lead the review.
Public records also show a Feb. 10 letter from Samuelson to McArdle which the mayor said he did not consider her earlier memo a “whistleblower complaint” and told her that if she didn’t agree, she could submit a new memo that detailed what improper actions had taken place.
That prompted another memo from McArdle on Feb. 26, in which McArdle recounted a meeting between the two the week before, where the mayor had made a similar comment that her first complaint was not a whistleblower report.
In the Feb. 26 memo, McArdle noted that she had said at that meeting, and the mayor had confirmed, that the earlier complaint had specifically mentioned that the report was being made under Langley’s whistleblower statute.
“The concerns I identified were in the form of questions and address improper governmental action from the mayor and the city council due to the way that they have managed the building department,” McArdle wrote. “The questions show not only a lack of understanding, rather they indicate a more compelling concern regarding the complacent attitude about what goes on in the building department and how public money is spent, that is managed solely by a contract worker. A situation that has led to unmonitored, unquestioned, mismanaged and unnecessary expenditures to city revenue funds.”
She also noted that it had been nearly three months since she submitted her whistleblower report, and noted that Cort had not yet contacted her about her concerns.
She also complained that, in the meantime, Samuelson had extended Snyder’s contract through March 31.
“By doing so you have provided an additional three months of opportunity for any improper government action to continue, resulting in the potential for additional negative impacts to occur to the already cash flow shortage on the 2010 city budget,” she wrote.
McArdle repeated her earlier concerns and added new ones.
McArdle said Snyder’s invoices were filled with acronyms that made it “virtually impossible” for the staff to question his invoices.
In her review of Snyder’s files, McArdle also found the file for the building permit she received for a remodel of her house at the end of January 2008. She noted that Snyder had issued a “certificate of occupancy” at the end of the project on Feb. 4, 2009.
But she said that Snyder continued to bill the city for working on her remodel project on 11 other occasions that stretched from Feb. 20 through June 3, 2009.
“What work was he doing?” McArdle asked. “It appears Bob is padding his salary with erroneous tasks and additional time. If he did this to my permit has he done it with other permits? How much public money has the city paid to him as a result?”
She also noted a day when Snyder arrived for work in the afternoon of Jan. 28, 2010, then left a few hours later to go play basketball with the public works director and a city planner.
McArdle said she had been asking Snyder repeatedly to give her records that needed to be archived.
McArdle said workers at city hall noted Snyder’s work hours that day, and were later shocked to learn that Snyder had apparently been paid for the time he had been playing basketball.
“The building official regularly participates in breaks with you and other city staff to go outside and throw a softball or Frisbee around during his work time. His invoices to the city indicate that he bills the city for that time,” McArdle added. “While this is OK for a regular employee to take a break during the day, the city should not be paying a contract worker for that time.”
Snyder was reluctant to address the complaint Monday.
“I’m not going to even reply to that,” he said.
When pressed, he said the allegation wasn’t true.
“The city was never billed for any time that I was playing basketball,” Snyder said.
Cort, who conducted the review ordered by the mayor, said he did not investigate McArdle’s complaints about Snyder’s performance during the review.
It was not appropriate for him to examine those issues, Cort said, because he was not Snyder’s supervisor at the time.
Samuelson said employees sometimes leave work to participate in the city’s “wellness” program, which sometimes includes shooting hoops or playing catch, and said he asked Snyder about the incident and was satisfied with the answer.
“I specifically spoke to Bob about that and Bob did not bill the hours for playing basketball, and did not bill the hours for playing catch,” Samuelson said.
“All of the complaint was addressed. Everything she complained about, we looked into,” he added.
Samuelson also said the complexity of the review made it take longer to finish, and said he did not feel bound by the 30-day investigation deadline that is set out in the Langley Municipal Code.
“I think the code is a guideline,” he said.
Samuelson also said his Feb. 10 memo to McArdle that asked her to submit a new whistleblower complaint was meant to clarify the intent of her earlier memo.
“There was confusion whether that was actually a whistleblower complaint or whether it wasn’t,” he said.
Cort completed his review of the building official position on March 22, although that date may be an error because the document is also dated “2009.”
He examined three years of activity in the building department, and determined that Snyder spent 50 percent or less of his time on plan reviews and inspections, which Cort said “constitute the core responsibilities of a building official.”
Snyder was paid $84,040 in 2007, $93,420 in 2008 and $82,080 in 2009.
In 2007, the Highlands housing project was under way. Cort said construction permits for 28 single-family homes, and several large commercial projects were being processed by the city.
Snyder said much of that work led to further inspections the following year. Likewise, when final permits are issued — such as the one done for McArdle’s remodel — he still has to conduct follow-ups, maintain files and do other work associated with those projects.
Cort’s review shows Snyder billed the city for 518 hours of plan review in 2007, and 489 hours of plan review in 2008. Time spent on inspections grew from 176 hours in 2007 to 300 hours in 2008 and 318 in 2009.
Historically, revenue from development projects has covered the cost of the city’s building official.
Cort noted that the city, beginning in 2007, moved from a $50,000 surplus in building department revenues and payments to the contractor to a $17,000 deficit in 2008 and a $36,000 deficit in 2009.
“It is clear from this analysis that the current workload expectations placed on our contracted building official, given the hourly rate and other support provided by the city, is non-sustainable during lean or even average building years,” Cort said in his report.
Cort recommended that the city change the structure of the office from a contracted position to a part-time city employee position, with other employees taking over some of Snyder’s previous duties. Snyder also worked as the city’s floodplain administrator and fire marshal, and did other planning and permit-coordination work.
Cort also said Snyder’s attendance at professional conferences should be cut back, and said he shouldn’t be asked to attend every staff meeting that’s held at city hall. Finally, Cort said the building official should be supervised by the planning director.
Samuelson told Snyder in late April that he had accepted Cort’s recommendations, and offered Snyder the part-time position.
In a May 17 memo to the city council, Samuelson announced the changes in the building department, and said the changes were not related to Snyder’s performance. He noted that the changes would make the position financially sustainable, and that Snyder would be paid for 20 hours per week at $30 an hour.
As to the costs of the building official in recent years, Samuelson said he inherited the arrangement when he became mayor in 2008.
The city paid Snyder to attend conferences and meetings because that was the way it had been done before, and the city was obligated to honor the contract, Samuelson said.
“That was the arrangement. That was the contract that was signed by the previous administration,” he said.
Samuelson — who noted the cost savings the city expects to get from changes in the building department during his recent budget talk with the city council — said the review was part of the continued efforts his administration has made in reorganizing city hall. He noted that other contracts had already been reviewed and changed.
“I think that what we’re doing is effectively and efficiently looking at all the systems and all the departments. One by one, we’re doing it in a holistic manner,” he said.
Samuelson said the city didn’t drag its feet on the review, but that time was needed for a thorough assessment.
“I don’t think we could have moved any quicker on shifting and changing that department,” he said. “Can we undo 16 years in 30 days? Of course not. The fact that we did it in six months I think is remarkable.”
“I’m very happy and comfortable with where we ended up,” Samuelson said.