Johnson City Construction

FILE -- A sign posted at a construction site in Johnson City.

While investigating an employee’s official complaint against City Manager Pete Peterson, Knoxville attorney Benjamin Lauderback also addressed an issue that has long dogged city officials: Is Johnson City friendly to developers?

“During the course of my investigation I heard about citizens and developers complaining of the unforgiving, uncompromising and negative attitudes of the employees in the fire prevention, and to a lesser extent, the codes enforcement offices in the Development Services division,” Lauderback wrote in a report he submitted to city commissioners in December.

Johnson City has three departments, Lauderback notes, that enforce various codes, two of which are under the Development Services Department: One of those is codes enforcement and the other encompasses trades and building inspectors. Additionally, the fire department has employees who focus on fire codes and fire prevention. Most of the people he talked to, Lauderback wrote, seem to agree that there is a lack of cohesiveness and communication between employees in development services and the fire department.

One of the most important job duties of trades inspectors, code enforcement officers and fire prevention officers, Lauderback said, is to say “no” if a code has not been met by a developer.

“Frankly, that does not seem overly complicated,” Lauderback wrote. “The complications seem to arise when after being told ‘no’ contractors, business developers and business owners go to air their grievances to city commissioners and, though not as commonly, Mr. Peterson.”

City commissioners, he said, then apply pressure on Peterson because of a “perception” by contractors and developers that Johnson City is “not ‘business development’ or ‘builder friendly’ and its codes officials are unyielding and unwilling to compromise.” Lauderback added, however, that further complications arise when employees enforcing codes do not explain the reasoning behind their decisions to the developer.

“Several codes employees did not see that as part of their role,” Lauderback wrote. “It is unclear to me why they do not. Mr. Peterson seems to be caught in the middle of these two opposite sides.”

Lauderback pointed to the City Commission’s written objectives for Peterson as evidence of their expectations, which included determining which city codes are essential, increasing building permits in the city, and encouraging customer-friendly service.

“While these expectations by the commission are not necessarily unreasonable, it does seem they come with a general lack of awareness about the importance and significance of the codes officials and their job duties,” Lauderback wrote.

Johnson City Mayor Joe Wise said that statement appears to be only based on the perception of some of the people Lauderback interviewed.

When commissioners have talked with staff about the importance of ensuring the city is “developer-friendly,” Wise said, commissioners have reiterated that they don’t want to take shortcuts on life-safety issues. Commissioners, he said, want staff to continue prioritizing compliance with life and safety rules while also streamlining the process and ensuring employees help applicants understand what they can do to be in compliance with the city.

Wise said in December he believes Lauderback focused on the issue of codes enforcement in his report because that was an explanation Peterson provided during the investigation.

The city hired Lauderback to investigate a complaint against Peterson by a fire department employee. That employee filed an official complaint against Peterson after the city manager berated him for looping the state Fire Marshal’s Office in on a conversation about the use of the former Ashe Street Courthouse as a quarantine building for homeless people with COVID-19.

“How you treat employees becomes how they treat your customers,” Wise said in December. “I don’t think that has anything to do specifically with development services or the interaction with builders. They’re just one of a myriad of stakeholders we as a city serve and interact with.”

Peterson said staff and elected officials both past and present have received feedback that service in the codes and fire inspection divisions hasn’t always been customer-friendly. He said commissioners have told him on multiple occasions that the city needs to improve that relationship.

“I don’t know how Mr. Lauderback could have done his investigation and subsequent report without addressing that aspect of the situation,” he said.

Asked why he was upset that Davis included the state Fire Marshal’s Office in the conversation, Peterson said in December he has talked to department heads for several years about customer service.

“When you have to tell somebody you can’t do what it is the customer is wanting to do, the answer isn’t ‘no’ and then walking away from it,” Peterson said. “The answer is, ‘You can’t do it that way, but let me show you how to get to the same spot.’”

In the case of the Ashe Street Courthouse, Peterson said, employees didn’t make an effort to reach out to Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy or Washington County/Johnson City Emergency Management Agency Director Rusty Sells about the use of the building. That’s the first thing they should’ve done, he said, before including an outside agency in on the matter.

Additionally, he pointed out that Johnson City exempted itself from state building codes in 2014.

Over the past few years, Peterson said, officials have internally reviewed operations and met with builders and developers to get their assessment of the city. Lauderback’s report indicates there’s still room for improvement, he said.

He said the city will be conducting another internal analysis of its fire inspection division and building department. He also wants to do an external analysis of strengths and weaknesses with the development community.