Fire department: Code inspection scheduled months ago

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, July 5, 2014

JANESVILLE--A dispute over a recent fire code inspection at a Janesville business continues to simmer even after fire officials denied that they targeted the owner for his opposition to a new central fire station.

Code inspection records obtained by The Gazette show Chad Karl's investment business office at 33 E. Racine St. was earmarked for a “catch-up” annual inspection that the fire department missed in 2013.

The records show that inspection, which the department completed Feb. 20, fell within a few months of a second check of Karl's office June 27. The department says that was Karl's scheduled 2014 inspection.

Karl continues to question whether the fire department “targeted” him with the June 27 inspection. He said the June check came just a few days after he'd posted Facebook criticisms of the $9.5 million fire department planned on Milton Avenue.

Karl is one of a few people helping resident Billy McCoy get signatures for petitions that seek to halt the fire station project and force voter referendums to approve all city projects over $2 million. McCoy has said he is trying to stop the station because of its cost and because key decisions, including one to take and remove 12 houses for the project, were made illegally in closed session.

Karl said he believes that the fire department is trying to “loop around” on the timelines of code checks on his business and that there are “inconsistencies” in both the timing of code checks and in violations the fire department found at his business.

The June 27 check at Karl's office turned up four minor code violations, according to fire department records. Karl's previous four fire code inspections turned up no problems, records show.

The department has denied it would target anyone with code checks, and it holds that it scheduled Karl's June code check months before he got involved in petitions against the fire station.

“Your properties and you have never been and are not now being inappropriately or otherwise targeted by the fire marshal or any other Janesville Fire Department employee (or other city inspectors), and definitely not because of either circulating referendum,” Fire Chief Jim Jensen wrote in a July 2 letter to Karl.

Fire Marshal Sue North and Jensen said the department was unaware of Karl's opposition to the fire station plan until this week.

They said the department was simply trying to catch up on about 200 fire code inspections it missed last year because of brutal winter weather and a lean code inspection staff.

In the past, the department has had a code inspector, but that position is vacant because of a retirement. Now, North, who has been city fire marshal about a year, oversees all fire code inspections.

Fire crews do the inspections and call in North or code inspectors from other city departments if they need guidance for potential violations, North said.

According to fire department records, the department over the last year--from June 2013 to June 2014--handed out 5,245 warnings for fire code violations, compared to  6,127 over the same period the prior year.

The city conducts code checks once a year, which satisfies state law, but the state allows a grace period for missed inspections, North said.

Department records show 208 of the 3,075 annual business fire code inspections slated in 2013 did not get completed, including an inspection of Karl's office.

According to code inspection reports generated Jan. 31, the department had assigned a fire crew to do a catch-up check of Karl's business as soon as possible. That was completed in February. The same report shows that Karl's business was set for a June annual check.

North said the department has no set schedule for catch-up inspections for a prior year, and it doesn't have any set buffer between catch-ups and regular annual inspections. 

“The catch-ups get done as soon as we can get to them. Sometimes, unfortunately, it happens that inspections fall closer together than we'd like,” she said. 

She said the check in February and the one in June put Karl back on a “regular cycle” for code checks. His next annual check is June 2015, she said.

Karl said he's still confused over the timing of two checks this year. He still wonders if the June 27 check wasn't “conveniently” scheduled to pressure him over his opposition to the planned fire station.

“They're trying to loop people around on these timelines,” Karl said. “Look, they did an inspection in February, and then they did another inspection five days after I put up a Facebook posting (about the fire station petition).”

Karl got flagged with warnings June 27 for violations, including improper wiring for a new electric water heater he had installed, apparently without a city permit, according to records.

He said he installed the new water heater in “late January,” and the department didn't flag problems with it during his February inspection. Karl said inspectors are not being consistent.

“My thought is, first, do it (inspections) on a consistent timeline. Second of all, complete the inspections with consistent enforcement,” he said.

Jensen acknowledged potential inconsistencies in fire crews' code inspections.

“Some people are going to see things that some people are not. Some are going to be more thorough. I wish we had a dozen fire inspectors that could go out and do these 3,000 inspections a year, but we don't. We have engine crews doing it,” he said.

Meanwhile, McCoy has filed letters with the Rock County sheriff and district attorney's   offices, urging them to look into “interference” and “harassment” of Karl by the fire department.

Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Barb Tillman said she's combed statutes governing petition and election fraud.

“The statutes have nothing to do with any kind of complaint or action that Mr. McCoy has mentioned,” Tillman said.

She said the county's corporation counsel has told her McCoy's complaints seem to be of a civil, rather than criminal, nature, and the sheriff's office doesn't intend to investigate them.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said the DA would not pursue charges unless they were recommended by the sheriff's office.

North said the fire department had hoped to meet with Karl to “resolve” his concerns. But she said the city has told the department to hold off on those talks because it now considers McCoy's complaint a “legal issue.”

Karl had 30 days to address the violations. He estimated the fixes would cost about $100.

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