Inspector ‘fired’ over Beach Bums inspection files grievance

TRAVERSE CITY – A Grand Traverse County building inspector who says he was fired earlier this summer for missing code violations at the Traverse City Beach Bums stadium has filed a grievance against the county.

Russ Schlarf had worked in the county's construction code department for nine years when he was placed on two weeks of unpaid administrative leave May 17. He was then given the option to resign his position or be fired following his unpaid leave. He chose to have his job terminated because he felt he did not do anything wrong.

"I did miss a few things at the stadium, but I was up front about them. I admitted what I missed," said Schlarf, 45. "There was a list of 16 items and I went back through and said, you know, of these 16 items I will easily admit to four or five things. There were things on that list that were not code issues, and I still stand by that."

Code issues with the $8 million, privately-funded Wuerfel Park, which held its first minor league baseball game May 24, didn't prevent the stadium from opening as planned. Owners John and Leslye Wuerfel are operating the stadium under a temporary occupancy permit until the code issues are resolved and a permanent occupancy permit is issued.

"There's no issue whatsoever of the safety of the building," said the Wuerfel's attorney Richard J. Figura. "What we're talking about are technical things."

The Wuerfels believed they had met all code requirements but were given a list of items to address "at the last minute," Figura said.

Code concerns have included such things as the need for certain signage, adjusting stairway width and landing size, installing door hardware and changing storage areas to office space to ensure safe access, according to county records obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Most of the necessary changes were made, Figura said, though a few remain. In July, the Wuerfels applied for and received a 90-day extension on their temporary occupancy permit to meet these final code requirements, including addressing the size of handicap-accessible toilet stalls and stairway and landing measurements.

Schlarf, who primarily inspected residential dwellings, said his past commercial building inspections drew no concerns. Other county inspectors have missed things on other projects, too, but hadn't lost their jobs, he said.

"My take is over the course of five years I've been a thorn in Dale's and Bruce's sides because of different managerial philosophies," Schlarf said of his relationships with former county Construction Code Director Dale Stevens and current Deputy Director Bruce Remai.

Incidentally, Steven no longer works for the county, though he said his departure on May 31 was not related to Schlarf or the ballpark's code issues.

"I think there are rumors," said Stevens, who had worked for the county for 14 years when he left to take a job as a project consultant with Traverse City-based Trison Engineering Group Inc. "It's just the timing is incredibly bad. The funny thing is it looks different than it is. But it's not. I needed a new challenge."

Stevens declined to comment on Schlarf's firing. "I'm really not at liberty to discuss that," he said. "All I can say is I wasn't there when he left."

Bruce Remai said he couldn't comment on Schlarf's departure "because that's not been settled yet."

Remai said Stevens' job change "had nothing to do with the ball park (code issues). He felt it was time to move on."

At press time, county officials and the union representing Schlarf in the grievance were waiting for arbitration through a state agency to start. This is the next step following a mediation, which took place in June.

"We did not prevail in getting Russell's job back at that level," said Butch Carmien, business agent with Teamsters Local 214, which represents state, county and municipal employees.

The Wuerfels have not been involved with the dispute between Schlarf and county officials, Figura noted.

"Any differences that inspector had with the county are not our concern," he said. BN