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Surfside building department was under review before condo collapse

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The building department in Surfside, the Florida town hit by the deadly condo building collapse, had reportedly been placed under administrative review due to disorganization and a lack of communication before the disaster.

Former town manager Guillermo Olmedillo placed the beleaguered department under review, according to a January 2019 memorandum obtained by the Miami Herald.

Olmedillo wrote then-building department director Ross Prieto that all inspectors needed to be immediately reachable.

Prieto was instructed to submit a weekly schedule of all building inspections, in addition to the results of all inspections, to Olmedillo by noon each Friday, according to the memo cited by the Herald.

All complaints about permits and inspections were required to be reported immediately — and all future administrative decisions were to be routed through the town manager’s office, according to the report.

“Building department functions … present several challenges to all municipalities, given the fact that all applicants demand immediate response to their needs,” Olmedillo wrote, the newspaper reported.

“It is essential that our Building Department delivers prompt and reliable service in those areas,” he added.

Prieto said in 2018 that the Champlain Towers South condo, which collapsed on June 24, was structurally sound.

His assessment came after the Champlain Towers South board reportedly held a meeting on Nov. 15, 2018, during which they discussed a report by engineer Frank Morabito, who flagged “major structural damage” caused by a leaky pool above the building’s parking garage.

“Structural engineer report was reviewed by [the inspector],” Prieto reportedly told the tenants. “It appears the building is in very good shape.”

Prieto, who left his post last year, had reviewed the engineer’s report after condo board member Mara Chouela forwarded him a copy, the Herald has reported, but he denied to the paper that he ever got it.

Prieto, who did not immediately respond to the Herald’s request for comment, has been put on leave by the city of Doral, Florida, as a contractor for CAP Government Inc. after the damning engineering report came to light.

The memo was delivered just a day after Prieto appeared to brush off a request from Chouela that raised concerns about a high-rise known as Eighty Seven Park that was being constructed next door, the Herald reported.

Chouela told him in an email that workers were “digging too close to our property and we have concerns regarding the structure of our building.”

She asked if a town official could come by to check, but he responded that “there is nothing for me to check.”

“The best course of action is to have someone monitor the fence, pool and adjacent areas for damage or hire a consultant to monitor these areas as they are the closest to the construction,” he reportedly wrote her.

On Wednesday, Olmedillo told the Herald that the response was technically valid — the work was being done in another municipality — but that perhaps the building inspector could have taken a different tack.

“Perhaps a courtesy from the building official would have been, ‘Let me go and check,’ ” or to call the building official in Miami Beach to discuss it, Olmedillo told the outlet.

There is no clear indication that the nearby construction contributed to the Champlain Towers South disaster, though some residents had complained of shaking in the building while Eighty Seven Park was being built, according to the Herald.

Olmedillo said he advocated for Surfside to outsource its entire building department to the county.

He said almost all of the town’s permit and inspection records were on paper — meaning the process was slow and lacked transparency — while the county’s records were all online, the paper reported.

“Building departments are always the focus of possible problems,” Olmedillo said. “The best way to dispel that is to have an open window. No hanky-panky is possible.”

He said he spoke to Jack Osterholt, a Miami-Dade County deputy mayor who was open to the idea.

“I said, ‘Could we have a [memorandum of understanding] with you guys, you take over the building department functions?’ He said he thought it was doable,” Olmedillo told the Herald.

Jaime Gascon, the code administration director for Miami-Dade, told the paper that while small cities often contract with the county to provide fire, police and library services, it doesn’t handle any building inspection or recertification services for municipalities.

But Olmedillo noted that municipalities can hire building officials on a contract basis.

“Guillermo’s idea was that the county is a well-run operation,” Town Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told the Herald.

“Rather than reinventing the wheel, let’s figure out a deal with them to handle our building department. It [would have] solved the issue of digitizing, paperwork, and personnel being maybe not fast enough,” she said.

“The building department was still run in a very archaic manner,” Salzhauer added.

Olmedillo said he didn’t remember formally placing any other departments under administrative review during his more than five years as town manager.

A former town official said Olmedillo’s memo “was like the last resort before possibly outsourcing to the county.”

“[Prieto] ran his department really autonomously,” the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the paper. “It was accepted as long as the work was getting done. When things weren’t getting done, that’s when it started pushing the envelope.”

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