Fibrant’s compliance problems date back to initial construction

Published 12:10 am Sunday, October 11, 2015

From its inception, Salisbury city officials touted Fibrant as a potential economic driver for the city. As they’ve touted Fibrant, however, city leaders leaders have also quietly addressed a problem affecting thousands of Fibrant line locations in Salisbury, according to interviews, city emails and documents dating back multiple years.

Fibrant — the city’s municipal Internet system — has fiber optic lines snaking through Salisbury underground and on power poles. There’s no specific pattern for where lines are underground versus on power poles, according to Kent Winrich, who was hired late last year to oversee the utility. In locations where Fibrant is affixed to utility poles, the fiber optic lines join ones from Duke Energy, Time Warner Cable and AT&T. In some locations, organizations may also install banners on utility lines to commemorate special events or denote specific areas of town.

A firm contracted to attach Fibrant’s lines to utility poles, however, didn’t follow the National Electric Safety Code when initially building the system, according to city documents and Assistant City Manager John Sofley, who oversees Fibrant. The City of Salisbury soft-launched Fibrant in November 2010. A March 2013 letter from Duke Energy to former Fibrant General Manager Mike Jury states the city of Salisbury first found out it was in violation of a pole attachment agreement in July 2011.

The same letter asked for the issues to be corrected by Dec. 31, 2013. An estimate in the letter stated that 842 fiber optic line attachments to utility poles were “at-risk” or out of compliance. When questioned about the pole attachment violations, Sofley said there’s no definitive number that completely covers all potential out-of-compliance issues.

“There is a question about how many are not in compliance,” Sofley said. “Everyone doesn’t agree on what’s not correct. And, you can’t fix something unless everybody agrees that it needs to be fixed.”

He said Salisbury officials and Duke Energy have to coordinate with private companies to ensure the third-party, internal company standards match up with the National Electric Safety Code. In some cases, private company standards differ from the national code, Sofley said.

“It’s like any other standard,” Sofley said about the National Electric Safety Code. “It’s there for a reason — it’s trying to promote safety. And, obviously we want to do everything we can do to promote safety.”

Emails and letters from Duke Energy to City of Salisbury officials included former City Manager Doug Paris, Jury, Salisbury-Rowan Utilities Director Jim Behmer and former City Engineer Dan Mikkelson. The Post obtained the documents through local attorney Todd Paris, who is running for city council and is the father of Doug Paris.

Todd Paris, who has made Fibrant’s compliance problems a campaign issue, said he requested the documents from city staff because he “heard about it a long time ago and did the requests to confirm if it was true.”

Citing potential legal backlash, Doug Paris declined to comment for this story. City of Salisbury staff directed questions to Sofley, who has been a city employee since 1987 and assistant manager since 2011. Sofley also briefly served as interim city manager.

Sofley directly attributed the pole attachment problems to Atlantic Engineering Group’s work during installation of the system.

“There are poles out there that before we ever got to the pole AT&T or Time Warner were out of compliance,” he said. “So, we attached our lines so that the attachment would be there initially until they move theirs. But we can’t move ours until they move theirs.”

He said the city didn’t authorize Fibrant’s lines to be placed out of compliance.

“That’s just what was done,” he said. “That’s what AEG did in some situations.”

Following the 2013 Duke letter’s recommendations, Salisbury has continued to work with Atlantic Engineering Group to solve the attachment problems.

It’s estimated Salisbury, through Atlantic Engineering Group, has corrected 1,000 known compliance issues. Most issues were corrected as Duke Energy replaced its utility poles. Sofley estimated there’s a total of 2,000 known compliance issues. For the city to definitively determine the number of issues, each individual utility pole attachment would have to be examined, he said.

Sofley stressed that one utility pole could have multiple compliance issues. In many cases, Fibrant’s lines are connected to a single pole more than once.

To be clear, the violations don’t affect the performance of Salisbury’s fiber-optic utility, according to Sofley. The main concern, he said, was that Salisbury’s lines are the minimum distance above the ground.

“It could be that the line is an inch too low,” Sofley said. “Technically, if you’re out of compliance then an inch is out of compliance.”

During an interview, Mayor Paul Woodson initially said he was concerned the pole attachments posed a safety issue for utility workers. Woodson later backed off that statement.

“I’m not actually sure if it’s a safety issue,” Woodson said. “As a mayor, I don’t really know about all the different codes. We’ve paid a company to do this.”

Linemen or utility workers are typically given exact details about individual utility poles when maintenance is required, according to Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Layne. Utility workers might rip a glove or accidentally damage protective equipment if poles don’t match up with expected measurements, Layne said.

She wasn’t able to specifically discuss Fibrant’s violations. However, she said Duke Energy individually tailors pole attachment agreements and all agreements are, at least partially, based on the National Electric Safety Code.

Salisbury hired a Greensboro law firm — Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey and Leonard LLP — specifically to ensure Fibrant is in compliance, according to Woodson.

Bills from the law firm total nearly $200,000, but Salisbury hasn’t filed a lawsuit related to the compliance issues. The exact duties performed by the Greensboro law firm are unclear. Descriptions of fees paid to the firm are redacted with the word “privileged” typed onto a black box.

Salisbury Communications Director Linda McElroy said sharing the specific tasks performed by the Greensboro firm would violate an attorney-client privilege. North Carolina’s public records law exempts written communications to governmental bodies made within an attorney-client relationship.

Salisbury also hasn’t taken advantage of a common provision in most contracts — a performance bond. Sofley said the city could only pull Atlantic Engineering Group’s performance bond — used to guarantee completion of a project — if the contract had been closed or the company refused to fix mistakes. Sofley said Atlantic Engineering Group’s contract remains open.

“When you hire a contractor, you hope the work is going to be done properly,” Woodson said. “It seems like some of the work in this case wasn’t done properly … We’d prefer to be able to get this thing worked out with AEG.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.