WEDNESDAY, March 29 — The recently retired head of Lansing’s Code Enforcement Office, which has been under fire over building inspection issues, said he quit because he was sick of political games.
Scott Sanford, 60, worked for the city for more than 23 years, but he retired unexpectedly March 17, with three days’ notice.
City Council members led by Ryan Kost have been critical of the Code Enforcement Office for failures in enforcing the city’s ordinance governing red-tagged properties, such as allowing them to be occupied and not fining owners. Kost was elected last November. Red-tagged properties are deemed unsafe to inhabit.
In addition, the city investigated Sanford last year stemming from a recording of a Code Enforcement Office staff meeting, City Council President Carol Wood recently disclosed. The recording allegedly revealed Sanford directed code enforcement staff to ignore complaints by then-candidate Kost. The recording also included an alleged physical threat against Kost said to have been made by an employee under Sanford’s supervision.
Said Sanford yesterday: “This whole thing has nothing to do with red tags. It had nothing to do with anything other than I was just tired of the politics. In three months, I become the pariah of code enforcement.”
Referring to Kost, Sanford said it happened “because one new City Council member who has nothing else to run on has decided to make a big deal out of something.”
As a result of the recording and investigation, Sanford was banned from communicating with City Council members or participating in Council committee meetings starting in December.
In an email to City Pulse on Tuesday, Wood said, Sanford “created an atmosphere that made an employee feel confident in making statements about violence whether joking or real in nature.” That, she said, led to her decision as Council president to bar Sanford from communicating with the Council. She told administration officials that she would cancel Public Safety Committee meetings for the remainder of the year if Sanford continued to try to attend meetings.
“I was prohibited from talking to City Council because of Carol Wood,” he said. “That is the reason I was prohibited from talking to Council because she called the mayor and said that if I did my job and attended those meetings, she was gonna cancel every Public Safety meeting for the rest of the year. The administration didn't have a problem with me doing my job. Carol Wood had a problem with me doing my job.”
Emails released Tuesday show that despite the ban on direct communication with Council members, Sanford did so on at least two occasions.
“I do not understand again why Scott is communicating with Council Members,” Wood wrote in an email Feb. 9 to Barb Kimmel, interim director of the Economic Development and Planning Department.
The recording of the conversation in which a Code Enforcement Office official allegedly threatened Kost was provided to then Council President Adam Hussain and Wood, who was vice president, on Oct. 31. The leaders handed the recording over to the City Attorney’s Office and the Human Resource Department.
The two departments conducted the investigation, and the results were reviewed by an outside counsel from the law firm Foster Swift. The city spent $15,900 on the investigation, said spokesperson Scott Bean.
Sanford said he was unaware there was a recording of the meeting, claiming the recording was made in violation of the law and city policy.
Bean said the city does not have a written policy prohibiting the recording of staff meetings, although in recent months signs have been affixed to walls in various conference rooms banning the recording of meetings.
The recording, Bean said, was “peripheral to the investigation and was not necessary for investigation findings.”
City Pulse filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Sanford’s personnel file on Feb. 13. The request sought not only all his evaluations and other personnel documents, but reprimands and investigations involving Sanford. The request explicitly referenced any audio evidence. A response from the city did not provide audio or reference any investigation involving Sanford or the Council’s communications ban.
An appeal for that denial has been made with Wood and is pending a decision.
Sanford acknowledged there had been an investigation.
He said he accused Kost of “acting like an ass.” He said he told Human Resources he had said it and to “write me up, do whatever you wanna do.”
The investigation resulted in a written counseling memo to his personnel file, he said, about disrespecting members of City Council.
Spokesman Bean declined to discuss the findings of the investigation or any disciplinary action stemming from it.
When confronted about the alleged threat, Sanford dismissed the concern.
“It wasn't a threat,” he said, noting the employee who made the comment was 72. “This whole thing is so blown out of proportion. It's not even funny. I mean, this was a meeting with people laughing and joking and you guys act like this is, you know, a Watergate.”
Sanford admitted he told the employee privately that the comment was unacceptable.
Wood said Sanford failed to follow city policy to report the threat of violence to the Human Resources Department.
“I was told when I asked if this happened that it did not,” Wood wrote in response to a City Pulse inquiry.
Kost said he and his husband did not see the threat as a “joke.”
“The policy is clear and it doesn't say, well, there's a stipulation if it was a joke. Violence is never a joke,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday evening. “We look at what's happening in our country right now with violence. Don't tell me violence is a joke. My husband was so scared that we had to put a security system in. I've never had a security system in my life.”
Sanford said concerns about red-tagged properties were overblown and politically motivated.
“You're talking about 55,500 plus housing units. When I retired, we had 711 red tag properties — that's less than 0.012% of the entire housing stock in the city of Lansing,” Sanford said. “If we didn't have some, I would be concerned that the people aren't doing their jobs. We do over 7,000 inspections a year. Either you're complaining that the housing stock sucks and that we're not doing our job. But yet when we go out and do our job, then we're making people homeless. You can't have it both ways. Safety is safety. I mean, we did our job.”
He said Kost was using the issue to gain political traction for his reelection in November. Kost is serving out the term of former Council member Brandon Betz. He has said he will run this year for a full, four-year term.
“He's running for freaking City Council on a reelection because he's only elected for one year on one issue,” Sanford said. “That really, in the history of the city, has never been an issue.”
Kost shot back.
“I just went to inspections on last Friday at 1317 Kalamazoo Street,” Kost said. “If he doesn't think it's a problem, then that was the problem in code compliance. Absolutely, it was a problem.”
Said Sanford: “Safety is safety. I mean, we did our job.”
Sanford said Kimmel was unqualified to be interim director of the Economic Development and Planning Department, which oversees the Code Enfocrement Office. Schor appointed Kimmel in February after Brian McGrain resigned.
“Mayor Schor has faith in Barb Kimmel — that’s why she is the interim director,” Bean said.
During his tenure, individuals were found to be living in 13 red-tagged properties in the First Ward. Those findings were the result of Kost’s taking a list of red-tagged properties provided by the code compliance office and checking on each property. Sanford said code officials did not have the authority to remove people from the properties. The Lansing Police Department was tasked with that because it was criminal law. He said the department was regularly notified by phone and email of people living in red-tagged properties.
City Council will hold a special Committee of the Whole meeting Monday (April 3) to discuss how the red-tag crisis has unfolded and make sure both the legislative and administrative branches of the city are following the same strategy of end the crisis.
That crisis, Wood said, was not one that happened overnight, and as the manager of the Code Compliance Office, Sanford was partially responsible.
“As we currently look at the red-tagged housing crises, and pink tags properties, this did not happen overnight,” Wood said. “This has been a problem for years, and many on Council have asked how can we turn this around and make slumlords more accountable to the system and their tenants. When you have overseen this department for years, as Mr. Sanford has, he must take on some of the blame in this matter.”
Bean declined to discuss specific employee performance in the department but acknowledged there were issues.
“We expect staff to inspect properties, and when properties are not up to code then they need to be fixed and brought into compliance in a timely manner. Code Enforcement is expected to accomplish this in the most expeditious manner, monitoring to ensure that red-tagged properties are brought up to code ASAP, and bad landlords are held responsible,” he said. “We are all working together to ensure new procedures are in place going forward to more strictly and strongly enforce red tags and review policies and ordinances for possible changes going forward.”
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