Mecklenburg County, city of Charlotte jointly reviewing code enforcement practices

Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte are planning to jointly hire an outside expert to assess code enforcement practices after officials heard a storm of complaints from developers, homeowners and real estate professionals.

Code enforcement is also a topic of recent interest by the U.S. Attorney’s Office investigating former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon, who faces federal corruption charges. In an FBI affidavit, Cannon had suggested he could influence the process.

In February, County Manager Dena Diorio made the topic a high priority after she and commissioners were bombarded with complaints that the code enforcement and permitting process takes too long and is cumbersome to navigate. She assigned Assistant County Manager Leslie Johnson to come up with recommendations to make the process more efficient and user-friendly.

At Wednesday’s county commissioners meeting, Johnson said that once Mecklenburg officials began talking to the city about its process, Charlotte officials asked that the city be included in the independent review.

The review, Johnson said, would identify potential “inefficiencies and/or inconsistencies.” She said they hope to hire a firm by the end of this month and the assessment would take 18 weeks.

As part of the county’s review, Mecklenburg County is also looking at aligning inspection times to the size of the project, Johnson said.

Other initiatives would include a customer service center to help infrequent users, the creation of a quality control process and a website that’s easier to navigate.

The county’s Land Use & Environmental Services department, which includes code enforcement, also will conduct a customer service survey in the fall.

Wednesday, Commissioner Dumont Clarke and County Attorney Marvin Bethune urged Johnson to make it clear to the public that the review wouldn’t change state-set building codes.

“We’re not talking about changing the codes, but implementing the codes,” Bethune said.

Prosecutors question county

Earlier this week, Diorio provided more details to the Observer on the meeting she, Bethune and Ron Gibson, a lawyer in Bethune’s law office, had with investigators in the U.S. Attorney’s Office about the Cannon case.

Under subpoena, the three met with investigators for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, Diorio said.

The investigators didn’t bring up the Cannon case, she said, but wanted to know how the county’s code enforcement and permitting process worked.

“They wanted to know about the process, the procedure and organizational structure,” Diorio said.

Cannon, arrested March 26, told undercover agents he could influence local government, including permitting, planning and zoning and alcohol licensing, according to the 42-page affidavit filed by the FBI. The affidavit said that Cannon told the agents that he’d speak to building inspectors, the county commissioners chairman, the county manager and head inspector on behalf of their fictional project.

Many of the functions are handled by the city, but Mecklenburg County oversees building permits to ensure compliance with the N.C. Building Code.

“They wanted to know what they (the city) do versus what we do,” Diorio said.

She said she doesn’t know of any county official or staffer approached by Cannon. She said investigators also asked about “elected officials interfacing” with staff and if it would be possible for an official to put undue pressure on staffers.

“I told them that I’ve instructed all employees to treat elected officials like they would treat any other resident,” Diorio said.