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What you need to know for 12/13/2017

Did code enforcement play role in deadly Jay Street fire?

Did code enforcement play role in deadly Jay Street fire?

'We’ll still be able to provide the service that residents and businesses expect'
Did code enforcement play role in deadly Jay Street fire?
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney speaks Thursday.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

Operations at Schenectady’s code enforcement department have been called into question after code enforcement officer Kenneth Tyree was indicted on charges related to the deadly Jay Street fire.

The announcement comes as the office is leaderless and facing a state audit, and raises questions about the city’s culpability in the 2015 fire. City leaders called the situation disappointing and sad, with Mayor Gary McCarthy citing code enforcement as an area of focus when he came into office.

RELATED: 2 arraigned on manslaughter charges in Jay Street fire case

“We’re asking people that are there to step up and pick up some slack,” he said. “We’ll still be able to provide the service that residents and businesses expect.”

Tyree, 53, was charged Thursday with four counts of manslaughter, one for each person killed in the fire. He also allegedly provided false information on his employment application. As a result, Tyree faces two counts of felony forgery and one count of offering a false instrument.

In addition, he is accused of lying to police in a statement given April 1, 2015, when he said the fire alarm system at 104 Jay St. was operational when he inspected it in March. Investigators believe the system was not functioning as of Jan. 22, 2015.

He was suspended without pay on Thursday, McCarthy said, and the city is moving to fire him. Tyree was employed by the city for close to three years, and was working up until Wednesday, McCarthy said.

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Though Tyree was a main focus of Thursday’s press conference, the investigation showed that the broader department likely has some responsibility for what happened at 104 Jay St.

For example, the investigation revealed that the building manager canceled alarm monitoring in October 2014, which meant no dispatch was sent to a local fire department when the alarm was activated. The monitoring company notified the code department by fax of the cancellation, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said.

No action was taken by the city as a result, Carney said.

No members of the code enforcement department were at Thursday’s press conference. Councilman Vince Riggi, who attended as an observer, was the only representative from City Hall.

“It seems like this tragedy could’ve been prevented,” Riggi said.

Riggi called on the mayor to bring accountability back to the code enforcement office, saying he believes it’s the City Council’s role to ask questions about the investigation and its aftermath.

Asked if he expects the city to face litigation stemming from the fire, Riggi, who chairs the council’s claims committee, said “it wouldn’t surprise me.”  

City Council President Leesa Perazzo declined to comment on the indictment or investigation, but said the council’s role in addressing the code enforcement department would be budgetary. There has not been any discussion among the council on the issue, she added.

The 2017 budget included funding for four code enforcement officers and four housing inspectors, in addition to eight other various aides and specialists.

Carney left open the possibility that the investigation might in the future address how the city has conducted and should conduct code enforcement, though he largely declined to answer questions Thursday about the office’s training process and operations.

Questionable application

In addition to the manslaughter charges, Tyree is accused of lying on his employment application, submitted on Nov. 15, 2013.

Carney wouldn’t get into specifics, but said the false information doesn’t necessarily mean he was unqualified to do his job.

“All I can say is that there was false information on his employment application about his background,” Carney said. “Had the true information been disclosed, it might’ve changed hiring him.”

Mayor Gary McCarthy said Tyree was hired from a competitive civil service list, so multiple people in the county and city would’ve looked his application over and missed any falsified information.

It’s unfortunate, McCarthy said, but fabrications are not always easily caught on initial screenings.

McCarthy added that he was not aware of any issues with Tyree’s performance prior to his arrest.

“Nothing came to me,” he said.

A department under scrutiny

The code enforcement department is in flux for the time being, as building inspector and department head Eric Shilling died on Feb. 10.

Shilling was not the target of a criminal investigation, and he was aware that was the case, Carney said.

The department will remain under examination, regardless of what comes of the grand jury’s ongoing work.

The state Comptroller’s Office announced in February that Schenectady’s code enforcement office will be the subject of an audit focused on multiple dwelling buildings, like the ones that burned down on Jay Street.

The audit’s scope will cover the department’s work between Jan. 1, 2015, through the end of the fieldwork process. Schenectady is one of roughly five municipal code enforcement offices across the state facing code enforcement audits. The process is expected to take between six and nine months, and will conclude with recommendations on how to improve the city’s operations.

Carney suggested Thursday that at the conclusion of its work, the grand jury could also compile a report with recommendations on how city code enforcement could be improved.

McCarthy said he’s open to implementing those recommendations as part of a broader effort to restore public trust.

In light of recent events, McCarthy acknowledged the department is a bit short-staffed. He’s seeking to replace Shilling as building inspector in the near future, and said he believes the office will be able to provide necessary services in the meantime.

“All departments will tell you they need more staffing,” he said. “You have to balance that and right now I believe we have within the budget adequate resources to provide resources through codes that the city needs and wants.”

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