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Difficult? Changes in Development Services Meant to Improve Interaction with Builders

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In response to the article below, President/CEO Cory Lewis has comments:

"We do business in a variety of jurisdictions, and difficult doesn't really describe the issues that we've had in Johnson City. It's more about inconsistency with code application that can vary widely and often. It seems to be tied to your personal relationship (or lack thereof) with the City, personality conflicts, petty stuff - even your last name or the company that you're with - as to how you're treated. In our experience, most any question in response to something commanded by the City is met with bravado and spite as opposed to answers. Answers like where that item appears in the code book. All that tells me is that there is also a lack of knowledge at the City where folks get mad if you start asking questions. And all the conflicts of interest that are continued to be allowed to exist within the City are mind-boggling," says Lewis.


"I don't know of any decent business person, especially in the construction and real estate community, that doesn't have issues or make mistakes, including us. The ones that I know don't want to cut corners, want to better the community, and just want it to be a fair playing field where all the rules are known on the front end and the same ones apply to everybody. I hope these changes help, but we've been around Johnson City long enough to remember the last couple of articles that were written about this and sounded almost verbatim - the names have all just changed, except for Pete Peterson's."

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Johnson City, a government that a city official said builders have found “difficult to deal with,” is reorganizing its development services department in an effort to improve customer service and streamline the development process.


The city said in a press release Monday that the changes — which includes the addition and refocusing of several positions — resulted from an assessment of the department, which the city said included meetings with community and industry stakeholders and interviews with employees.


“We took an in-depth look at what we were doing well and what we could do better,” City Manager Pete Peterson said in the release. “We listened to the feedback from our stakeholders and determined that speed, consistency, efficiency and customer service were areas for improvement. After carefully assessing the strengths of our staff to determine how we could best utilize their talents and skillsets, we developed a plan that will provide an enhanced level of service moving forward.”


Dave McClelland, who previously served as deputy building official, will fill the new role of development services manager, where he will “serve in the field as an advocate for expedited project development and will oversee both the building and permitting functions to facilitate successful completion of any project from start to finish,” the city said in the release.


Adrienne Brown, a former permit technician, will fill the new role of permitting coordinator. She will be responsible for monitoring and improving the permit process and the current use of the city’s development software. Existing customer service clerks will become permit technicians. The city said these employees will participate in additional training to obtain International Code Council permit technician certification.

In his new role as development services manager, McClelland will oversee the city’s chief building official, a position previously held by Jim Sullivan. The seat is currently vacant, but the chief building official will serve as the “chief plans examiner, chief building inspector and property maintenance inspector.”


The city said it is currently searching for candidates to fill the position.

The code enforcement division, which oversees zoning, nuisances and property maintenance, was previously overseen by the chief building official. Will Righter, who acts as the staff liaison to the Board of Zoning Appeals and the Board of Dwelling Standards and Review, will lead that division. The city said a development technician position has been added to that team to assist with planning and zoning concerns.

Development Services Director Preston Mitchell said Tuesday that the reorganization won’t result in any new net positions, but will lead to a $22,000 increase in cost. That, however, will be offset by salary savings produced by the currently empty position of chief building official, which Mitchell anticipates will be filled in March.


Mitchell said that, in short, the city is taking stress off the role of chief building official, who will primarily work in-house focusing on plan review, and redistributing the responsibilities to ensure the new development services manager has time to focus on working hand-inhand with the development community to handle problems in the field.

In late September, Vice Mayor Joe Wise said in an email to city officials that builders find Johnson City “difficult to deal with” and called for a roundtable discussion involving local developers and city officials.


Officials discussed the reorganization during the City Commission’s agenda review meeting on Monday evening, and Wise said Tuesday the reorganization is a promising first step. He said there’s still plans to hold a roundtable discussion in the future.

Anecdotally, Wise said applicants have told him in the past that navigating the city’s permitting process has felt like “a moving target,” with information not being clearly communicated at times and issues changing from inspection to inspection or inspector to inspector.


“I think what the reorganization does is create a scenario in which there’s a person who’s responsible for that process and all of those people and really trying to guide the process effectively for people who are trying to undertake projects in Johnson City,” Wise said.


Mitchell said the reorganization is motivated in part by some of Wise’s concerns.

“If we as a department cannot be transparent and not open to constructive criticism, then we are destined to fail,” he said. “We have to be open to constructive criticism and we have to be open to change and we have to be open to making improvements because that’s how you improve customer service.”


Written by: David Floyd for the Johnson City Press