Government Inspectors: Behind the Scenes

I spent a dozen years working for a licensing unit for a municipality. It doesn’t matter what we were inspecting and licensing, it all works about the same way. To begin with all the inspections end up being health and safety inspections regardless of unit. Restaurant inspectors look into professional food establishments while code enforcers may look into child care, buildings to meet city standards, public health nurses doing wellness visits for children and the elderly, assisted living inspectors, animal control, and a whole host of other things that can involve you on a personal level. To the inspectors there is a list of items to look for. Pretty cut and dry. To the people having to meet these expectations the codes can seem unreasonable, unfair, and unnecessary. If you feel this way, you are probably right, unless you are a criminal.

I used to think that codes for cities were some kind of local laws written by lawyers and blessed by judges. I was completely wrong. The way they write code is to have brain storming sessions to discuss what codes they want to use to target certain behavior they do not like. Ok. Picture a group of workers. Managers, office type people who never go in any facility, employees who go in the facilities, and then stakeholders like local business owners. Everyone gets a say in these decisions. It becomes a committee and all committee means is compromise, so that no one is happy. I’m not saying one person making the decision would necessarily be better, but there would be some real accountability. As it is, everyone says, “that’s not what I wanted put in there, not my responsibility” and they pass the buck. It was never said, but I am sure that is the whole reason for this convoluted system.

Behind the scenes every thing is political, but to the inspectors it is a lifetime job to retire from. The politicians come and go. They act like they are the most perfect people, the most influential, the ones who are going to change everything and make a difference. They are only around 3 years or a mayor might get re-elected and get 6 years. Imagine you have already worked there for 12 years and gone through 3 administrations. Every group that gets power wants to do the same things. It never works because it is one knee-jerk reaction after another to real problems that need sustainable solutions. These people just want to look good to get a chance at governor, senator, congressman…some higher level of politics. As soon as they get the backing they want, they don’t care what happens in the agencies. As an employee you are always balancing between the latest-greatest-thing and a way to do your job that is effective and doable over a long period of time.

You have meetings all week that are nothing but time wasters. It’s a way for someone who is holding the meeting to showcase themselves and how they want the work done. They say they want input, but when you input something they don’t like, they make your life a stressful nightmare. A pet peeve of mine is favoritism, so every time they wanted to put some restriction on a “nobody of consequence”, I would ask if we were going to make specific people follow the rule, who I knew were always before the assembly and had a free pass basically. The answer was also a disapproving look and “of course”, but that person never had to follow the rules. Therefore, I wouldn’t check for that particular thing when I did an inspection. It was rigged in my opinion so some people would never be held accountable for it. Why should one person have to be accountable for it when someone who had more resources, but was close to influential people, didn’t have to do it? I just couldn’t bring myself to enforce those issues.

They gang stalked me at that job until I lost my mind. It’s called workplace bullying. You can find books on the topic and many sites on the internet. It’s like all workplaces are purging good people and replacing them with people who will play along to get along. I have never been able to do that. It’s not in my nature at all.

But, if you are on the other side of this bureaucratic nightmare, here are a few tips. Your inspector can’t help you. I don’t care if you get along with your inspector or not. The simple fact that the person is an inspector means that they are “boots on the ground” and have no power. In fact they are being harassed as much as you or even more inside the government agency. You have to go over their head if you have a serious problem.

The first manager you are going to be referred to is the jerk who told the person to give you a hard time in whatever area you are being inspected. It may be from a blanket policy, or maybe something about your case was something the manager disliked. Maybe the manager got acid reflux from lunch and your case was the first case he/she saw after lunch. Who knows? Anything could have happened to get you targeted. Often your inspector doesn’t even know why the manager wants them to be inflexible with you.

The first manager is a waste of time, but you have to go through with it. At the very first meeting with the manager, they have, already ran your issue past their boss. According to what the issue is, maybe they went to a boss or two above that boss. They already know basically what the legal department is going to say. They will have someone else in the room usually as a witness for them. You need to have a witness for you in the room if you can. They will record you without you knowing it. Not all managers do that, but the technology gets easier and easier to use, which in turn means that more and more often you are being recorded. If I were you, I would have a little recording device or just turn on my phone to record. I wouldn’t tell them unless there’s some law in your state that says you have to.

If the meeting ends ambiguously…something like, “we will look into it and get back with you”, ask for a rough time line. One week? A few days? How long until you will hear back from them? And then follow-up and follow-through. They have no incentive to get back with you if you don’t want to follow their rules. You will have to be persistent.

If you don’t like the answer you finally get or they are perpetually stalling, then you will want to look into getting a lawyer. If the lawyer can’t get them moving, then you are going to need a really tough lawyer, not just one for intimidation. That or just drop it, but you will always be considered a problem citizen. It’s best to fight through to a conclusion if you can.

Make a scene. Make the managers and stakeholders know that you will go to your assembly representative, your state congressman or senator, or even federal level. Always remember it is a political climate even if nothing particularly political has anything to do with your case. These people want happy citizens, constituents, and voters. They do not want to look bad over something that is a difference of opinion. Even use social media and the internet if you feel you need to.

There are actual crooks doing business in every city without the government ever saying a word to them. They know they have lawyers on retainer. They know that the crooks are highly motivated to not have any sanctions put on their business. They go to the assembly members, state congress, and the feds. They are always ready to fight, so they are hardly ever talked to at all. They follow-up and follow-through. You may never have the clout these other fellows do, but you can follow-up and follow-through. It will make all the difference for you when dealing with the people from government agencies.

Hope that is useful. Thank you for listening.

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