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Fire Department Follies Redux

When the city rolled code inspections and development into one, and called it the Department of Development, Carlene Malone raised mortal hell, predicting inherent conflicts of interest when development people started muscling codes enforcers to cut corners.

Now, look for a major lawsuit out of that department. Former city Fire Marshal Richard Costanza is on sick leave after having filed three Civil Service complaints accusing Development Department officials of pressuring him to look the other way on possible code violations. Under the City Code, the fire marshal answers directly to the fire chief. Under city administrative policy, which was changed at the direction of Mayor Victor Ashe, the fire marshal answers to the Department of Development. Costanza, who holds the rank of assistant fire chief, was given a written reprimand when he "refused to accept (Codes Administrator Chevelle Lewis) as his direct supervisor..." according to a Feb. 26 memo written by Development Department director Doug Berry to Fire Chief H. Gene Hamlin. Attached to Berry's memo was "a personnel action regarding Mr. Costanza's insubordination."

The major complaint centers around Atlantic Research Corporation, which had applied for a permit to install concrete slabs for a facility that would include tanks to store volatile gases. Costanza, concerned that the fire marshal's office wasn't called in to review the ARC plans as required by city code, went to Hamlin. Lewis, according to a narrative she wrote Feb. 23, was asked by Berry to "look into" the situation" because Hamlin said "...that Richard Costanza was apparently upset that I had approved a plans review for ARC and purposely eliminated Fire Inspections from the review."

Lewis said Charlie Wilson, a plans examiner, told her the ARC plans didn't need to be reviewed "by gas, mechanical, plumbing, electrical, or fire inspections." She went to see Costanza and asked why he had spoken to Hamlin instead of to her. According to her narrative, "He told me that I shouldn't be authorizing any plans review without notifying Fire Inspection. Once again, I told Richard that I was his boss and that I did not need his permission to sign anything. He began yelling and screaming and telling me I was not following procedure..."

Sources say Costanza learned about ARC's plans by overhearing a conversation in a hallway and was concerned that the concrete slab foundations for these storage facilities were too close to the main building and would not leave enough entrance access for a fire truck, as required by code.

Berry says Costanza's complaints are groundless. "Can anyone in the public rationalize why a fire inspector should approve the pouring of 11 concrete slabs?" he says. "Since when did concrete become combustible material?" Berry calls Costanza an overzealous regulator who wanted to create "an inquisition environment" in dealing with permit requests. He also speculates Costanza's complaints are politically motivated—"We are moving into a political cycle."

In a March 1 memorandum, Costanza denied Berry's accusation that he had failed to cooperate with the plans review process: "Since the Fire Prevention Bureau is not always included in the plans review process, we are unable to assess the degree of hazards and life safety issues. It is our obligation to interpret and enforce fire codes as adopted by City Council."

Costanza, who has a reputation as a straight-arrow enforcer of the Life Safety Code, had a drive-home car and worked Monday-Friday, 8-5, as fire marshal. He was transferred against his wishes to a rotating shift.

Guess Who Didn't Come to Dinner

So what's the matter with the Republicans? We hear turnout at the Lincoln Day Dinner—which can top out at around 1,000 in a good year—was the lowest ever this year, with only 250-300 in attendance. Maybe they were like John Schmid, who opted to break bread with the Tennessee Conservative Union at the Black Horse saloon instead. Schmid said he preferred the renegade group because "They don't have beer at Lincoln Day."