Sarasota County Commission votes unanimously to modify job qualifications for Building Official

Trade groups support the change, while a scenario provided by Commissioner Christine Robinson proves ‘very illuminating’

Tom Polk. News Leader photo
Tom Polk. News Leader photo

Before the Sarasota County commissioners last week gave unanimous approval to a change in the qualifications for the county’s Building Official, the director of Sarasota County’s Planning and Development Services Department assured them that building industry groups, the county’s Chambers of Commerce and area engineers and architects supported the modification.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo also cited a “very illuminating” example Commissioner Christine Robinson provided the board in explaining his motion for the change.

The staff recommendation was to amend the County Code to eliminate the language calling for the Building Official to have at least 10 years of experience in “the field of building construction, building inspection, architecture or engineering,” with at least five years of supervisory experience in a building department.

The person in that job still will have to comply with all the requirements in the Florida Statutes for such a position, Planning and Development Services Director Tom Polk told the commissioners on Dec. 9.

After hearing protests from two speakers, Robinson described the following scenario regarding a candidate for the county’s Building Official position: “Somebody who’s been building houses, commercial — you name it; run the gamut — for 47 years. They’ve actually used their hands to build [things]. They’ve supervised [construction] … and they’ve had to apply the local code to do it. … I’m actually thinking of my dad.”

Robinson asked Polk, “Would he be able to be hired, somebody like him who’s done it his entire life” since he returned from the Vietnam War?

She was quick to caution, with a chuckle, that she was not trying to win her father the position of county Building Official, “because that would be an ethics violation.”

Polk told Robinson her father would be qualified for the job, based on that description, as long as he had the appropriate certifications required by the state.

When she asked whether the current County Code qualifications would prevent someone like her dad from being hired, Polk said they would.

“Wow,” Robinson responded.

A continuation of the public hearing

County Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
County Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

When the board first held a public hearing on the matter, on Nov. 9, a staff memo provided to the board in advance pointed out that the county’s qualifications for its Building Official are more stringent than those of the state. Whereas the state statutes allow an applicant for such a position to substitute some postsecondary education for actual work experience, the County Code calls for at least five years of supervisory experience in a building department, along with “knowledge of the various aspects of government or business office operations.”

Polk said during that meeting that he and his staff did not want the latter requirement “to be a limiting factor” for people applying for the county’s vacant job of Building Official.

(All four candidates for the Sarasota County position have the current qualifications in the County Code, Polk noted on Dec. 9.)

After the Nov. 9 discussion, the commissioners voted unanimously to continue the public hearing, because they wanted Polk to contact more of the county’s industry groups, as well as architects and engineers, to ascertain their views on the proposal.

On Dec. 9, Polk reported that all the stakeholder groups supported staff’s recommendation for the change in the County Code. Additionally, he said, he spoke with John Ryan, president and CEO of the Venice Chamber of Commerce, and Bill Waddill, senior vice president of Kimley-Horn and Associates — which handles many Sarasota County projects — and they provided verbal support for the code modification.

Then Chair Carolyn Mason recognized three speakers. As they did on Nov. 9, former Sarasota County Building Officials Greg Yantorno and Paul Radauskas protested the changes.

Yantorno, who said he was representing more than 1,700 Building Officials in the state as president of the Building Official Association of Florida, asked whether Polk and staff had reached out to the local spa and pool contractors, roofing contractors, marine contractors and plumbers, among others. “They account for the majority of the industry,” Yantorno pointed out.

Greg Yantorno. News Leader photo
Greg Yantorno. News Leader photo

Further, most other jurisdictions require more qualifications than the state does, Yantorno said. He had searched the Internet for jobs in Sarasota County that require no hands-on experience, he continued. “There are a few,” he told the board. Among them, he added, are positions for bartenders, baristas, floor-care technicians, dishwashers and psychics.

Yantorno said staff needed to raise the salary range for its vacant Building Official position if it wanted to find qualified applicants, instead of changing the requirements.

“You get what you pay for,” he said. “It’s the citizens of Sarasota County who end up paying the price in higher insurance [expenses] and lower construction standards.”

As he had on Nov. 9, retired county Building Official Paul Radauskas told the board, “I was the one who wrote [the current qualifications] and put [them] into the codes in 2002.” The goal, he pointed out, “was to preserve the integrity and independence of the position and to make sure the person has the necessary technical and management skills when they are appointed.”

In the past, he continued, one person appointed as Building Official had no knowledge of building codes and “and did not meet this five-year requirement. As a result, that appointment had to be rescinded.”

He added, “You have to hire people who have the necessary experience and technical knowledge. … This position has to give interpretations to all sorts of situations,” and the Building Official has to be able to talk with architects, engineers and attorneys about “critical matters” related to the County Code.

Paul Radauskas. News Leader photo
Paul Radauskas. News Leader photo

Radauskas urged the board “to do the right thing” and keep the code as it is.

On the opposite of the argument, Jon Mast, a former county employee who is CEO of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, told the commissioners, “This is a much to-do about nothing.” The members of his association, he added, believe in removing the extra requirements from the County Code and putting them in the advertisement of the Building Official’s position.

After the three men concluded their comments, Caragiulo asked Polk whether the current County Code was placing just another bureaucratic prerequisite in the qualifications. Polk concurred with that characterization.

“’Cause government does everything better,” Caragiulo responded, prompting some laughter among his colleagues.

“Our intention is to get the best qualified candidate, going forward,” Polk replied.

In response to a comment from County Administrator Tom Harmer, Polk told the board that staff is setting up interviews with the four people who have applied to be Building Official. The job will continue to be posted until it has been filled, Polk added.

After the board voted unanimously to find the recommended code modification consistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, Caragiulo made the motion to approve the adoption of an ordinance making the formal change.

Commissioner Charles Hines seconded the motion.

A letter from the Gulf Coast Builders Xchange supports the changes. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A letter from the Gulf Coast Builders Xchange supports the changes. Image courtesy Sarasota County

He was skeptical about the proposal when the board addressed it on Nov. 9, Caragiulo said, because he felt staff had undertaken insufficient due diligence. Then he alluded to Robinson’s example involving her father’s work experience. Caragiulo said he found it “a little curious” that the County Code would “narrow the playing field down to something very specific that doesn’t necessarily — to me — speak directly to a skill set that someone would need.”

He added of the staff recommendation, “I’m perfectly comfortable with this ordinance going forward.”

“We’ve experienced a whole lot of things in our codes that should be taken out,” Robinson noted. “It’s really amazing that we would exclude somebody like [her father] from applying if they had the appropriate [certifications].”

The vote then was unanimous in favor of the change.