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Jackson approves audit contract for code enforcement office

jacksonQuestions about how well the Jackson County Permitting and Code Enforcement Department has been executing its responsibilities prompted commissioners to unanimously approve a fixed $15,350 audit contract last week with the national firm Benchmark Planning.

According to the scope of work, Benchmark’s audit of the department will include a review of its structure, workflow, software system, reporting requirements and staff training. 

“We’ve had questions raised about whether our code enforcement office is doing their job,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “Are they enforcing standards? Are they filling out applications and doing inspections and all the things that come along with that job? Are they doing what they’re supposed to be doing? The audit should give us a good picture of that.”

The questions arose during fallout from the departure of the county’s former planning director, Gerald Green, last month. Green, who took a job as executive director of the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission, had told The Smoky Mountain News that job dissatisfaction had been part of his reason for leaving. He’d felt that his role was not appreciated by county management and that his responsibilities had been siphoned off to the code enforcement department, which was created in 2011, shortly after Green’s arrival. The new department’s director Tony Elders was given the responsibility of permitting and enforcing the ordinances that Green had helped create. 

Except, apparently, the mountain hillside development ordinance. 

According to Green, County Manager Chuck Wooten had told him that Elders’ department would be in charge of enforcing the ordinance. Wooten denied that, telling The Smoky Mountain News that “the planning department has always had that responsibility (to enforce the ordinance)” and that he’s “not sure why a statement was made to the contrary.” 

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The upshot is that since 2011, nobody has been enforcing the ordinance that outlines restrictions for construction on steep slopes. And that’s apparently not the only oversight present in Elders’ department. Commissioners had also learned that Elders failed to collect affidavits from builders exempt from needing a general contractor’s license since affidavits were first required in 2011. 

All that has commissioners wanting to know what’s really going on. 

“These things have bothered me personally,” said Commissioner Vicki Greene. “You put trust in people. You trust that they’re doing their job and you end up questioning that trust.”

Benchmark, which Jackson County identified through the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, expects to start work in mid-July, bringing a team of three up from Charlotte for two days. A report would be issued within four months, possibly sooner, and the team would present the results to commissioners during a public meeting. 

Elders has certainly been in hot water over the discovery of the lapse in steep slope and contract license requirement enforcement, but what about Wooten, whose job it is to oversee the department heads? 

When asked, both McMahan and Greene voiced a vote of confidence in the county manager.  

“At this time, no, I don’t have any concerns,” McMahan said. “I feel like Mr. Wooten has done his job.”

Though Greene affirmed that it is the county manager’s job, when county commissioners adopt policies, to “assure (commissioners) those policies are being adhered to, that they are being administered correctly,” she agreed with McMahan.

“I can’t say that I do have any concerns about how Chuck was doing his job in relation to this,” she said. 

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