Charlotte failed to secure necessary permits for arson building

The city of Charlotte and the Charlotte Fire Department did not obtain necessary permits to renovate a building on North Graham Street, even though a former employee and a City Council member raised questions about safety there and whether the city had followed county regulations.

The former employee, Crystal Eschert, said she was fired by the city in September in retaliation for being a whistleblower. She had raised safety questions about the building, which will house the department’s arson investigators.

Eschert, a former fire investigator, said she had complained about the building to her supervisor as well as to Claire Fallon, a council member.

The city has said she was fired for making an offensive Facebook post. The post, about the aftermath of the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., said that the White House and civil rights leaders wouldn’t have paid as much attention to the issue if the victim where white.

City Manager Ron Carlee last week defended the firing, saying Eschert’s use of words in her Facebook post such as “thug” and “worthless” were inherently discriminatory. However, Carlee said he would hire a third party to investigate Eschert’s claims that she was retaliated against for being a whistleblower.

Eschert is the first person the city has fired for violating its social media policy.

In an email to Fallon on Aug. 14, Eschert detailed a number of safety concerns about the building, including asbestos and possible mold.

She also wrote: “It was decided the building would never pass a proper building inspection so we are no longer allowed to say it will be ‘renovated’ because that would require pulling permits and doing the work proper to bring it up to code. We are supposed to term it as ‘maintenance.’ ”

After hearing from Eschert, Fallon asked for a tour of the building on Aug. 20, with Deputy Chief Rich Granger and Carlee, among other officials.

Fallon said she asked Granger at the start of their tour whether the city had obtained permits for the building.

“It was the first thing I asked when I walked in,” Fallon said.

Fallon said Granger told her that the permits weren’t necessary.

City says permits not needed

In an interview with the Observer before Thanksgiving, Granger and Sue Rutledge, the head of the city’s building services division, said the building didn’t need permits. Granger stressed that the work done was simply “repairs.”

The Fire Department, however, had done work such as remove a temporary wall, among other renovations.

The city said last week that it should have sought a permit for the work. It has paid a $2,500 fine to Mecklenburg County.

The Fire Department declined to comment for this story.

The city’s corporate communications department issued a statement from Rutledge about not pulling the permits.

“We were unaware that a permit of this nature was necessary to conduct general maintenance work,” Rutledge said. “I thought work like replacing ceiling tiles, carpet, repairing electrical was repair and did not need permitting.”

When asked by the Observer why the city didn’t follow up on Eschert’s and Fallon’s questions about permits, the city said officials didn’t follow up because they thought they were correct in their original assessment.

Fallon said she didn’t believe that the city’s building services department wouldn’t know it needed permits.

“You mean to tell me they didn’t know that you need it?” Fallon said.

Gene Morton, Mecklenburg County’s building code administrator, said people are required to pull permits so the government can ensure that construction is done safely.

Eschert also complained about possible mold in the building.

In early September, a city consultant found that most of the building’s air was in good shape.

However, the consultant found “possible mold amplification” in two areas of the building: a basement and a warehouse on the first floor, near offices where three employees were already working.

Because of the high readings, the consultant recommended the city conduct additional testing. During the first round of testing, large garage doors had been left open, which could have made the original results inaccurate.

When asked by the Observer whether the city had done the additional testing, Granger and Rutledge said they didn’t know. They later said they would do more testing in December.

‘Unethical’ post

Part of Eschert’s Facebook post read: “So WHY is everyone MAKING it a racial issue?!? So tired of hearing it’s a racial thing. If you are a thug and worthless to society, it’s not race – You’re just a waste no matter what religion, race or sex you are!”

Carlee last week wrote labeling people with such words “is unethical, inherently discriminatory and, in the circumstances that this post was made, inflammatory.”

Eschert told the Observer that she didn’t mean for the word “thug” to be seen in a racial context. She said it was her way of describing someone who breaks the law.

City Council member Michael Barnes has declined to comment on the case, saying it’s a personnel matter.

Barnes, however, has used the word “thug” in a public setting. In a 2006 council meeting, Barnes addressed former police Chief Darrel Stephens about crime problems.

“People do not feel comfortable living in their own homes in their own neighborhoods because they think some thug or some criminal is going to invade their home, and I see that happening more and more frequently,” Barnes said.

Barnes said Monday his use of the word was OK because he was describing someone who would be a criminal. He said he believed the Facebook post was referring to Michael Brown Jr., who was killed by police in Ferguson. He said he disapproved of that use.

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