EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 21, 2012

City building inspector back on job after leave

Returns with list of grievances

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — Ten weeks after he was put on paid leave for allegedly failing to report $33 million of new development he approved, a longtime building inspector with a troubled work history returned to his job this week and presented his boss with his own allegations of wrongdoing and a list of demands and labor grievances.

Among them, Inspector Larry Hester demanded to be reimbursed for the five days he was not paid during his 10-week leave, when he otherwise received his $54,000-a-year salary.

Hester also requested a stack of records involving the work history of other employees and an accounting of the compensation they receive.

He also accused acting Inspectional Services Commissioner Peter Blanchette of discrimination, harassment, retaliation and unspecified civil rights violations in connection with Blanchette’s decision to place him on leave while the permits he failed to report are audited. Hester is African-American. Blanchette is white.

Blanchette would not comment on Hester’s allegations and demands or say why he was brought back to work while an audit is underway.

Hester also declined to discuss the charges against him or his counter-charges against Blanchette.

“I got a lot of work to do. I got tons of permits to issue,” Hester said yesterday during a brief interview in the DPW offices at City Hall.

Nevertheless, a few minutes later, Hester hiked up to building’s third floor to press City Attorney Charles Boddy about his case, waiving off a receptionist’s protest that Boddy was unavailable.

Blanchette put Hester on leave on Oct. 5, after Breda Daou, the chairwoman of the city’s Board of Assessment, discovered he failed to report 349 building permits allowing $33.3 million in new development in 2010 and 2011. The failure cost the city just over $300,000 in uncollected taxes at a time when it was laying off police and firefighters, including about $100,000 that the city will have to write off.

On Dec. 7, Blanchette sent Hester a hand-delivered letter to his Abbot Street home directing him to return to work Dec. 19 and informing him that he would not be paid for a week of the 10 weeks and two days he was on leave. Blanchette told Hester that the docked pay was punishment for the insubordination he allegedly displayed when he was questioned about his alleged failure to inform tax assessors of the development he was approving.

“Specifically, you displayed hostility in words and actions to your supervisor, were argumentative, blatantly refused to perform a directed task, and, after repeated instructions, refused to follow practiced office procedures — the timely processing of building permits,” Blanchette wrote. “Your conduct interfered with the operation of the Inspectional Services Department.”

Hester, president of a local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, responded with a workplace grievance accusing Blanchette of “selective, biased, false scapegoating, unsubstantiated and untruthful statements, slanderous and defamation of character allegations without dates, when, how, where and why and or specifics....”

He also requested an accounting of overtime paid to other department inspectors and copies of any disciplinary letters placed in their personnel files over the last five years.

Hester — a Building Department employee for about 30 years, including about 25 as an inspector — also demanded the department provide him with “the proper tools and or training required to perform the basic essential duties” of his job.

The 10-week leave and the angry exchange of allegations between Hester and Blanchette caps Hester’s history suspensions, administrative leaves and one termination by previous mayors, and his equally long history of getting them overturned.

Former Mayor Patricia Dowling suspended Hester several times for a total of 10 days during her single term, which ended in 2001, but each suspension was reversed because the city failed to follow collective bargaining procedures.

Former Mayor Michael Sullivan fired Hester in August 2006, citing numerous complaints against him, including insubordination, harassment of co-workers, misuse of vacation time, abuse of sick days and roughshod treatment of the businesses he inspected, which Sullivan said was characterized by “aggressive, rude, arrogant, belligerent and obnoxious behavior.”

A hearing officer ordered Hester reinstated, in part because the city did not call the business owners who filed the complaints against him to testify at the hearing.

Hester also has a history of filing civil service and discrimination grievances against the city. Few, if any, have stuck.

The discovery that Hester allegedly failed to inform assessors about the development he was approving prompted the Building Department to begin a transition from paper to digital record-keeping that will automatically forward building permits and other records to the assessor’s office and other city departments.

The City Council delayed action on the request for $126,000 for the new software on Tuesday — one day before Hester returned to work — while it awaits a committee’s review of the request.

Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, urged the council to purchase the software in order to maintain “a clear, accountable and efficient” system of issuing building permits “so that no future revenue is lost.”

In an Oct. 4 letter to the council, Nunes also blasted “the negligent practices and lax oversight” in the Building Department and said he had “encouraged Mayor (William) Lantigua to review and take action where appropriate on any personnel matters that resulted in this lost property value and revenue.”

This week, Nunes appeared to backtrack on the personnel issue when asked to comment on Hester’s return to work.

“As you know, I have no role in personnel matters,” Nunes responded.

Lantigua did not respond to a request for comment left with his receptionist at City Hall.

City Council President Frank Moran said he was unaware that Hester was back at work.

“I will comment when I find out what’s going on, what the reason behind it is, for bringing him back,” Moran said.