Failing Inspection

 

Sitting in his office at the Department of Public Works building in June 2011, Inspectional Services Superintendent Eddie Nuzzo spoke of the sweeping changes that had been enacted as a result of a recently published independent review.

The review had a long list of issues with many ISD employee behaviors. Some were “short fused” to people who didn’t speak English as their first language. Others were slow to respond to building inspection requests. And it stated building code issues found on inspections were often not documented.

“We’ve changed the dress code, our personalities. We’re more customer friendly than we used to be,” Nuzzo said. “You only get one chance to make a good impression, and we’ve grown by leaps and bounds.”

Last summer, Nuzzo had agreed to be interviewed about the changing culture of ISD in the context of a proposed condo project near Davis Square, which had been causing controversy for 10 years. As opponents of the project dug up more on the developer’s background, a pattern of building issues in Somerville emerged.

ISD  is responsible for enforcing state building and health codes in addition to Somerville zoning ordinances. Nuzzo said the building code issues were not indicative of any overall problems at the department.

“The administration knows that we know our stuff, and [the mayor] lets us do our jobs,” Nuzzo said. “I would put this group up against anybody.”

As superintendent, Nuzzo oversees the inspectors who handle those responsibilities, including Paul Nonni, a senior building inspector who has worked in the city for decades. But two and a half years after Nuzzo became superintendent, he has yet to pass the state-mandated tests that certify he is qualified to handle the position.

Nuzzo’s struggle speaks to a central issue with ISD that was ignored in the independent review: Somerville has had nearly constant certification issues with its superintendent since Mayor Joseph Curtatone took office in 2004.

City officials were tight-lipped about why, declining access to Curtatone, Nuzzo and his test scores.

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests, comments at a public meeting and interviews with state officials filled in some of what was left unexplained.

How many chances?

The issue of having a building department led by an uncertified official goes beyond Nuzzo. It’s a pattern that began with the previous Curtatone appointee, George Landers.

Landers replaced ISD Superintendent Michael Foley, who served from 1990 until 2004. After five years on the job, Landers was transferred to the Buildings and Grounds department in late 2009. He had been unable to pass all the state-mandated tests certifying him for the position since he took the job, and held the position two years longer than currently allowed by state regulations. Landers remained as superintendent for a year after the state denied his last extension request.

(At the time, there was no limit on the number of extensions the state could grant. That has changed since Landers left the position, with a maximum of three extensions now allowed.)

Nuzzo was hired for the position, which pays $67,458 annually, in Jan. 2010. In June 2011, just a month after insisting things were on the right track in the wake of changes being made to the department, Nuzzo filed his first extension request with the state. He had failed the first exam, which tests knowledge of one and two-family residences.

 

“With obligations: to a Mayor, eleven Aldermen, and eighteen staff members and seventy-eight thousand citizens,” Nuzzo wrote in an email obtained by Scout, “Finding time that is needed to study for examinations thus far, has proven to be one of the more difficult portions of my position.”

The score he received on his first attempt at the first of five state-mandated tests wasn’t an issue of a few points. Having scored a 30 percent — he was far below the passing grade of 75 for the open book test.

After three attempts, Nuzzo has consistently failed the first of five required tests. He is on his second six-month extension given to pass the exams That leaves him with one last possible extension should he not pass that first test and the four after it by October.

Testing: One, two, three

The state requires appointees to pass five exams to legally remain as a build commissioner once appointed. Building inspectors are required to pass three. The exams are open-book and based on international standards and regulations.

Rob Anderson, the state’s chief of inspections, said the tests are designed as an education process. They allow candidates to become familiar with the layout of the international building code and teach them where to look if they need to find certain building code information. Learning how to navigate the code, Anderson said, is what’s important.

“That’s what the entire certification process is all about,” Anderson said. “It tests your ability to look up information …You really need to know the books in order to go out into the field to know whether or not construction is within the code.”

The state will only consider test scores after approving the official is otherwise qualified for the position. In a statement in 2010, Curtatone cited Nuzzo’s work on projects throughout the city since his 1998 hiring.

“In addition to this, Eddie brings to this position over a decade of experience as a contractor where he worked on both residential, commercial, and public sector construction projects,” Curtatone added.

Officials are given 18 months after being hired to pass the exams. If they fail to do so, they may request a six-month extension. Nuzzo’s original deadline expired in July 2011; his first extension expired March 31.

Nuzzo has taken the first test four times and has yet to pass before either of these deadlines. He has failed three times with an average score of 29.3 and is awaiting his most recent score.

Keeping score

Nuzzo applied for a second six-month extension as the March 31 deadline approached. His request was reviewed by the state’s Building Official Certification Committee (BOCC) at an April 4 hearing in the basement of the Public Safety Building in Sturbridge.

Anderson said it is not unusual for someone in Nuzzo’s position to ask for an extension, or even two and restated that the tests are meant as an educational opportunity. Prior to the April hearing, three other inspectors across the state had been approved for extension requests in 2012 according to public records. Nuzzo’s struggles as an immediate follow-up to Landers’s make Somerville noteworthy. Another state official, who asked not to be identified, said it is unusual for a municipality to not be more proactive about getting their officials certified.

 

After 10 minutes of discussion, which included a review of Nuzzo’s failing test scores and first extension request, the board voted unanimously to grant the second extension, giving Nuzzo until October to pass or apply for a third and final extension.

While the vote was unanimous, some board members expressed concern about Nuzzo’s test scores at the meeting. Board member Andrew Bobola, a building inspector for Mattapoisett, said he worried that if Nuzzo couldn’t pass the first test after two years, he wouldn’t be able to pass the five required to gain certification by the time his extensions ran out. The tests, another committee member said said, get progressively more difficult.

“The [fire protection exam, which most applicants take third] is the hardest one,” the committee member said. “It’s very, very difficult for anyone to pass the first time around.”
Spencer said Somerville officials told her the City, and Nonni in particular, would be working closely with Nuzzo to help him pass. But other members were uneasy about his struggles on the first exam, with one classifying the scores during the meeting as “scary.”
While the City refused to release Nuzzo’s scores, they were revealed at the meeting. He has registered scores, in chronological order, of 30, 16 and 42. A 75 is required to pass.
The next steps
With Nuzzo’s second extension in effect, he has until October before he can apply for a third and final extension. By next April, he will need to have passed all five exams in order to be certified and legally hold the position.
That didn’t stop Landers and the City from requesting more than three extensions, or BOCC from granting them at a time when the number of extensions that could be granted was unlimited. City spokesman Tom Champion said the issue of how many extensions the City asks for is a state issue.
“If it got to the point where [Nuzzo] was not in compliance,” Champion said, “we would have to address that situation.”
Champion added that the mayor and his administration have been pleased with Nuzzo’s on-the-job work, but acknowledged that acquiring certification is important element of the job. He said for a city employee, complying with state regulations “is a crucial element to their overall work performance.”
In the email he sent requesting his first extension, Nuzzo said making time to study had been one of the more difficult elements of the job. At the BOCC meeting, board members said that, like how police officers and firefighters are supposed to have academy time built into their job, time to study for the exams should be built into the position’s working hours.
Nuzzo has taken the first test a fourth time but has not received his score, Champion said. He was scheduled to take the second test for a first time in June.
Champion said he was “not aware of the time management Eddie’s using to prepare for his exams,” and said the mayor’s “door was open” if Nuzzo felt he needed more time to study.

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