However, the court members did come to an agreement, although not unanimous, that the city should hire the fire marshal as a full-time employee and contract with the county for its handful of inspections.
Commissioner Eloy Rodriguez, the lone vote against approaching the city to have him become a full-time employee, was adamant that given recent events, the court should terminate the contract with the fire marshal.
“I am not comfortable with you (Fire Marshal James Barrie) anymore,” he said.
“We might eventually possibly be headed to a lawsuit because of these inspections that are not requested.”
At issue is whether Barrie, who is considered a contract employee for both the city and county, can charge a fee to inspect, unsolicited, businesses within the county as the fire marshal.
Barrie, at the time the county agreed to his contract, was employed by the state forestry service.
“I assumed you were going to keep that hat,” Rodriguez said. “I never imagined this was going to turn into a full-time job.”
Rodriguez reminded that the court hired Barrie with the belief that it is a part-time, as needed position, and not a full-time position.
He described the inspections Barrie says are required yearly of some businesses as “fronts” for the fees he uses to fund his office.
Barrie said that the minimal amount paid to him by the city and county doesn’t fully fund his office. Nor does it provide the funding for public education he wants to increase as part of his position.
“I feel this position is very needed, necessary position for the safety of the public,” he said of his decision to leave the state and take on the fire marshal position as a full-time job.
“Public safety is not an as needed position.”
Rodriguez was adamant that the court withdraw its contract with Barrie, saying that he was overstepping the intent of the position and the fire code.
“Just like we hired Mr. Barrie, we can hire another fire marshal,” Rodriguez said. “It is not whether we need a fire marshal or not. It is what is going on and again we can, we will hire another fire marshal if it comes to it.”
Commissioner Carlos Salazar Jr. said as he looked at Barrie, “Even if the county were to terminate the contract, the city still has a contract with you.”
“Eighty percent of the businesses are within the city.”
Businessman Armando Musquez, flocked by several other business owners, voiced concern over the fees charged by Barrie.
“It is not the inspections. It is not the need for the fire marshal... It is that he is walking into a business inspecting your area, some as simple as a fire extinguisher, and saying you owe me $75.
“Somebody walking into your business to do an inspection and saying you owe me money — it is just not right.”
Agreeing with Commissioner Dennis DeWitt, Musquez said that he understood many businesses require inspections.
“There is a need for a fire marshal,” Musquez said. “Some homes, like foster homes, do require inspections and that is fine.”
Assistant Fire Chief Lanny Holland spoke in favor of Barrie and the fees charged for the inspections he says ensure public safety.
“You have somebody here that is very well versed (in the codes),” Holland said. “He conducts himself very well. He also has to make a living so he charges a fee.
“Y’all need to look in your own back yard. The fire marshal ought to look at this building.
“Just walking into this building I saw a minimum of three violations of the fire code and the life safety code.”
County Judge David Silva suggested that instead of scrapping the contract, that it be modified with a fee schedule for the inspections and specific regulations of when the inspections, such as whether they have to be requested be included in the contract.
“I think we will need to change the contract...,” Silva said. “I am not sure how the court is going vote.
“My personal view is a lot of people are upset and I can see the other side as well.
“‘If requested’ is a very important part of that.”
DeWitt proposed an alternative idea — have the city fund the position full-time and work out an agreement with them to handle the few county inspections.
“I understand people’s angst when someone comes in and says, ‘You owe me a certain amount of money.’”
The idea even garnered the support of Salazar.
“I am in favor of him being a city employee vs. him being a private contractor.”
However, that support came with a caveat.
“If we can’t work out a deal with the city, then I would go with your (Rodriguez’s) motion of terminating him.”
Barrie too has previously voiced support of becoming a full-time employee instead of a private contractor.
“I would prefer that if is something the court was interested in that somebody would contact the city,” he said.
Salazar pleaded with Rodriguez to hold off on the motion to terminate Barrie until they received word back from the county attorney on the issue of whether the fire marshal can inspect businesses without a complaint or a request.
Rodriguez said, “I want to do it today and let the businesses know who supports them and who doesn’t support them.”
Jason Collins is the editor at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 121, or at editor@mySouTex.com.