Sides calls for fire marshal to resign

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 3, 2012

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — County Commissioner Jim Sides called for the resignation of the county fire marshal Monday, saying the official knowingly gave the board false information.
Sides challenged statements made by Fire Marshal Tom Murphy at a previous meeting about a new fire prevention and protection ordinance.
The ordinance passed on second consideration Monday by a vote of 3-2, which is the same vote as it received in February.
It was brought before the board again because the first vote wasn’t unanimous, and Sides and Vice Chair Carl Ford voted against it both times.
No other commissioners joined Sides’ public request for Murphy’s resignation or dismissal “on the grounds of presenting false and misleading information to this board and a consistent history of dereliction of duty.”
The fire marshal reports to the county’s emergency services director.
The new ordinance clarifies local rules and inspection procedures. It also establishes civil fines for violations of the state fire code.
Up to this point, the Fire Marshal’s Office could address repeat fire code violations only by filing a misdemeanor criminal charge and going to court.
Murphy told commissioners Monday that about 30 percent of businesses are found in violation after the initial visit. Sides then asked to play a video from the Feb. 20 public hearing.
“Of all these businesses that have been visited three times, you determined that 30 percent of them have been in noncompliance after three visits,” Sides said in the video.
Murphy nodded, adding, “and with minor violations.” He continued that major violations presenting a serious safety hazard are handled before inspectors leave the building.
The estimate of 30 percent noncompliance was repeated several times on Feb. 20 – once by Planning Director Ed Muire and at least once more by Murphy.
When asked at that meeting how many businesses would receive a civil penalty if it were available, Murphy turned to a fire inspector, who gave a figure of 33 percent. According to the ordinance, businesses would not be fined on a first visit.
On Monday, Sides said that according to county records, 309 of about 981 inspected businesses have been given violations. Of those, only 17 had been visited twice, and two had been visited three times.
After the meeting, Murphy said he’s not sure why any businesses had a third visit, because that’s not part of the inspections process yet. He said there was a misunderstanding about the noncompliance figure.
Sides also criticized Murphy for leaving several businesses with major open violations like blocked exits and faulty wiring.
One example was Boral Brick in East Spencer, which Sides said had 22 violations, including improperly stored gasoline, on its first visit in May of 2009. He said there has been no second visit by inspectors.
Murphy said after the meeting that he doesn’t know about the specific cases Sides brought up, or why any serious violations would be left open.
“I’m not an inspector… I wasn’t out there with them,” Murphy said. “We’re going to go back and see what those are.”
He added that some of the records might be wrong, because of either software issues or inexperienced part-time staff entering them incorrectly. There are only two full-time inspectors at the office, Murphy said, and they also do investigations.
At one point during the meeting, Commissioner Raymond Coltrain asked Sides how Murphy’s job performance applies to the ordinance.
“You may cast the third vote, and you may pass this ordinance,” Sides said, addressing the board. “If you do, you will do so knowing that it has been presented based on information I have proven to be false and misleading.”
Coltrain and Commissioner Jon Barber both said they interpreted Murphy’s comments differently.
Coltrain said he understood the question to be, “How many businesses are in violation to some degree?”
“I believe this board’s role is establishing policy for county government and not, in a public setting, requesting an employee to resign or be terminated,” Barber said.
Vice Chairman Carl Ford didn’t talk about Murphy in the open meeting.
“I just don’t want us to add these fines right now in this economy,” Ford said, “and with (the fire code) already being in North Carolina law, I see no reason to vote for another ordinance.”
Chairman Chad Mitchell said he supports the ordinance because it isn’t adding any new rules or regulations – just another layer of enforcement.
“In the instances Commissioner Sides referred to, if a fine was available, I don’t know if the fire marshal’s office would have done things differently,” Mitchell said. “But I’m certain that… the fact that their only real recourse is a criminal charge weighs heavily on the decision of how to enforce that.”
Barber said the criminal court process would be costly for businesses and for the county.
After the meeting, the board entered closed session to discuss personnel matters, economic development and approval of previous closed session minutes. It then adjourned without taking action.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
Facebook: Karissa.SalisburyPost

In other business
Rowan County commissioners also:
• Decided not to withhold the next quarterly payment to the Rowan County rescue squad, which is scheduled for April 6.
Commissioner Jim Sides said that as of Friday, he has received all of the information he requested from the rescue squad in November.
• Approved a rezoning request involving three properties near Cleveland.
One parcel belonging to James and Cora Bame and two others belonging to neighbor Clyde Graham were rezoned from industrial to rural residential, matching the use of the land.
• Revised the planning and zoning services contract between the town of China Grove and Rowan County, increasing the annual cost from $18,000 to $25,000.
• Approved the purchase of a 2012 Chevrolet ambulance for the Emergency Services Department at a cost not to exceed $130,000. This price takes into account an $8,000 trade-in allowance for an ambulance going out of service.
• Authorized pyrotechnics displays at Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium for the 2012 season.
• Approved board appointments and budget amendments, including changes to the health department budget to reflect a decrease in funding from Smart Start Rowan.
• Set a public hearing for April 16 about an N.C. Catalyst Program application by Grateful Heart Ministries.
• Proclaimed April 2012 as Child Abuse Prevention Month in Rowan County.