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Fired Tampa building inspector must be reinstated

TAMPA — As the owner of a construction company, Troy Chavez was hired to renovate the mudroom of a South Tampa home.

Then, as a city building inspector, he signed off on his own work, saying it was up to code.

The city fired him for it.

Now it has to take him back.

Tampa's Civil Service Board unanimously overturned his dismissal at a hearing last month.

"It was his first offense, and everybody spoke highly of him — co-workers and supervisors," said Bob Birrenkott, a member of the Civil Service Board for more than 12 years.

The board ruled that firing Chavez was too severe, and instead issued a 10-day suspension.

Although they're bound by the board's ruling, city officials stand by their decision to fire Chavez.

"This is a very fundamental serious offense," said John Barrios, manager of the city's Construction Services Division. He said there are no laws that prohibit building inspectors from checking their own work, but it raises ethical questions.

"It's common sense that you don't do that," Barrios said.

Donald Fuchs, executive director of the Building Officials Association of Florida, said an inspector should never inspect his own work.

"The point is to have a second set of eyes," he said.

Barrios said Chavez would be reinstated to his old job, but bristled when it was suggested that Chavez was being "rehired."

"In my mind, with hiring I have a choice," he said.

Chavez, owner of Unique Craftsman Inc., since 1995, started work on the home of Terry and Cathy Sopher in 2005.

He continued working on the home after he accepted a job as a city inspector in July 2006.

Six months later, he was the inspector who conducted the final review of the project. It passed.

The Sophers alerted the city that Chavez had inspected his own work after they became embroiled in a lawsuit over payment for the project. Chavez says the Sophers still owe him money. The Sophers say he overcharged them. The case is ongoing.

After the city investigated the complaint, a predisciplinary hearing concluded Chavez violated city policy by doing work that conflicts with his duties as an employee.

He was fired in September.

"I was very comfortable with the decision we made," said Human Resources director Kimberly Crum. She said Chavez circumvented procedures to inspect the South Tampa house because it had not been assigned to him.

Chavez referred questions to his attorney, Matthew Fenton, who denied that Chavez violated city protocol.

He said Chavez was unjustly fired. He was a new employee not wholly familiar with the city workings, Fenton said.

"It was unwise for him to do it, because it just creates a bad appearance and was a bone-headed thing to do," Fenton said. "That was something he admitted to when it first became an issue."

Fenton also noted that Chavez performed only the routine, final inspection, and not the more substantive earlier reviews.

"On a project like this, there was nothing much to inspect," Fenton said. "It would have passed inspection no matter who went out there."

The city has not reinspected the property.

Chavez will be back in his $45,000-a-year city job in June, and will receive back pay for the time he was unemployed.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Fired Tampa building inspector must be reinstated 05/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2008 9:33pm]
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