A public work session designed to address complaints about Oldsmar’s building and code enforcement departments concluded with some positive direction and lingering questions.
Oldsmar resident Sheri Clarke speaks to city officials during a code enforcement workshop on Friday, July 8, 2016. the informal session was designed to address issues with the city’s permitting process.
When Oldsmar officials held a public workshop in March in order to address complaints that had been lodged against the city’s building and code enforcement departments, the hope was that enough progress would be made to continue to move forward.
And while all parties involved agree there were some positive things taken away from that meeting, as it turned out, one work session wasn’t enough.
So the city went to the unique step of scheduling a second session last week to address issues that have been raised—namely a lack of communication between permit applicants and department staff, and insufficient record keeping due to outdated systems—and to allow for public comments this time around.
Unfortunately for some, the second meeting was more of the same.
Oldsmar resident Matt Clarke speaks at the Oldsmar City Council meeting on January 5, 2016.
“The last meeting was a puppet show, and this one is the same as the last one,” Matt Clarke, who along with his wife, Sheri, were the ones who originally petitioned for the workshop when they appeared before the council in January.
“Two-and a half hours and so much information where all I can see so far is a lot of Coke-can kicking down the road.”
“We feel like we’ve been overly-scrutinized,” Sheri Clarke said. “We don’t feel like we’ve been treated fairly by the city.”
The Clarkes’ frustration stems from a seven-years-long saga with the building and code enforcement departments regarding the couple’s plan to build a garage on their Pine Avenue property.
A series of misadventures followed, with fines, fees and permit violations piling up by the folderful, much of it due to the poor communication between department staff and residents, according to Clarke.
A slide that was shown during the Oldsmar code enforcement workshop on July 8, 2016.
“We’ve been trying to work with the city for seven years,” he said, adding, “dealing with the city is a contradiction of hypocrisy.”
To their credit, officials have recognized and admitted things needed to be done to make the department run smoother.
Planning and Redevelopment Director Marie Dauphinais said the department is looking into purchasing new software that will help with record keeping, and she said they’re thinking about using an outside auditor to review the entire operation.
“We might need to add an outsider, like a third party peer review, to assist us, because sometimes we’re too close to the situations to see the problems,” Dauphinais said.
Some changes, such as updating the FAQ section on the city’s website and continuing to train recent staff hires, have already taken place, leading Matt Clarke to admit the permitting process “is way better now” than it was just a few months ago.
Oldsmar City Council member Jerry beverland speaks during the works session while Vice Mayor Eric Seidel and Council member Gabby McGee look on.
Yet, questions and concerns still linger.
“We need to do anything we can to make this a better experience,” Council member Gabby McGee said. “Even if we have a survey for everyone who gets a permit.”
“Everything here boils down to one word—communication,” Council member Jerry Beverland said. “It’s important now more than ever.”
After the workshop, the Clarkes shared their thoughts on the whole situation.
“We’ve been trying to get our garage built for the past 7 years at a cost of over $30,000 (*plus) and we still to this day have not had one staff member call us in to resolve this problem,” Matt Clarke wrote Oldsmar Connect.
“City staff should start acting on their statements and claims instead of kicking a coke can down the road as it only makes it harder for city council to try and fix the problem.”
Mayor Doug Bevis also weighed in with his perspective on the matter.
Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis.
“I think the workshop was worthwhile and productive,” Bevis said. “We identified some things that will potentially make us more efficient. I think the peer review is a big step in the right direction.”
The mayor was also quick to point out that the Clarke case is more the exception than the rule.
“I think the Clarkes’ situation is an exception,” Bevis said. “In general, we have very few problems compared to the number of permits issued each month.”
“Unfortunately for the private sector, we’ve got policies, procedures and codes in place, and you can’t scrap everything and start from scratch,” he added. “I think the key is trying to educate everyone on the process.”