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Ethics panel eyes housing inspectors

Some city housing inspectors have done after-hours contracting work on other people's properties, and the Board of Ethics wants to meet with the inspections chief to discuss concerns.

The watchdog panel said even if inspectors are doing work on their own time, it raises potential conflicts when those properties are later inspected by departmental staffers.

Questions surfaced after the mayor's complaint line received an anonymous call from someone who claimed that several inspectors were working on an addition to a garage in South Buffalo. The caller said the same inspectors were spotted working on other properties.

Inspections Commissioner Raymond K. McGurn said he checked into the matter and concluded all work was on inspectors' own time. He said employees working on the garage expansion were helping a friend who had already obtained a permit for the project.

City Corporation Counsel Michael B. Risman maintained that city employees have a right to earn extra money on the side, as long as the work poses no conflicts. He urged the Ethics Board to be sensitive to "working people" in city government whose wages have been frozen by a control board.

But Ethics Board Chairman Douglas S. Coppola said inspectors can do work elsewhere.

"It's a big community. They can earn a lot of extra money in Lackawanna, Hamburg, Amherst, Cheektowaga, Sloan and other places where permits are issued where you don't have the same department inspecting," said Coppola. The president of the inspectors' union agreed that the practice needs to be reviewed.

"I don't think inspectors should be working in the city unless it's on their own homes," said Kevin Fitzgerald. "Even if it's right, it might not look right."

McGurn said there's no formal city policy that bars inspectors who have carpentry and other contracting skills from having side businesses. "But we don't encourage them to do work in the city," he said. "And we certainly don't have them inspect their own work."

McGurn stressed he was the one who requested input from the city Law Department and the Board of Ethics after the June complaint was brought to his attention. He has accepted the Board of Ethics' invitation to meet in November to review current policies and discuss possible safeguards for avoiding the appearance of conflicts of interest.

Among other things, the panel wants assurances that no inspectors are routing contracting work to fellow employees when they cite properties for violations.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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