Change needed for city building department, businesspeople say

Photo by Deb Gau Chet Lockwood spoke to members of the Marshall City Council on Tuesday night.

MARSHALL — Just talking wasn’t enough, local residents said — it was time for action.

A group of Marshall businesspeople and residents calling for “culture change” in the leadership of the Marshall city building department filled the room at a city council meeting Tuesday night. Speakers at the meeting said the building department was acting as an obstacle to growth and development in town.

“We’re trying to address a chronic issue in Marshall,” said Chet Lockwood, speaking to city council members.

While council members said they were interested in listening to the businesspeople, Lockwood and other local residents said dialogue wouldn’t fix the problem by itself.

On Friday, a group of Marshall contractors and businesspeople advertised that they were petitioning the city to review the performance of building department leadership. Petitioners claimed the city building department was causing construction delays and additional expenses, and hindering development in Marshall. The petition included names of more than 100 local businesspeople and called for the formation of a committee to review building department leadership, city building ordinances, and fees.

Lockwood said previous efforts to change the city building department “have been a Band-Aid on a bullet hole, at best.”

The city building department was the subject of a review done in December 2014. In a presentation to the city council in early 2015, a consultant from Springsted, Inc., recommended the building department emphasize communicating with the public in order to help improve its customer service. The review was based partly on interviews with city staff, council members and builders and contractors, consultant David Unmacht said.

At a February 2015 city council meeting, Unmacht said he received a mix of positive and negative comments about the building department. He said criticisms interviewees made included that the building department was inflexible and strict in interpreting state building codes, and not good at communicating about its decisions. However, he also said some of those problems weren’t unique to the city of Marshall.

More recently, Marshall council member James Lozinski had also called for the city to form a committee to review its building ordinances and standards. At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Bob Byrnes said he had met with members of the group of local businesspeople about forming the review committee.

However, businesspeople speaking at the council meeting said what was really needed was action from the city, and changes to the building department.

“Without a culture change, the committee is a moot point,” Lockwood said.

One audience member called for a show of hands of people who agreed with Lockwood, and many hands went up in the gallery.

LeRoy Affolter said the city needed to consider whether its building rules were beneficial for both the safety and cost of structures.

“You have codes and ordinances as guidelines, and not absolutes,” Affolter said.

Greg Taylor was more forceful in speaking to the council.

Because of the building department, Taylor said, “There’s nothing going on in this town.”

“We’re all done with dialogue,” he said. What was needed was change. “You get it changed, or we’ll change you,” he told council members.

Council member Craig Schafer said the council would do everything it could to address the group’s concerns fairly, and there would be no retaliation against businesses or businesspeople.

“We appreciate the effort that it takes to come forward,” Schafer said.