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City Staff Hand Over Permit Building Debacle Emails

Dallas City Hall | Image by Dallas Development Services Department/Facebook
Dallas City Hall | Image by Dallas Development Services Department/Facebook

After members of the Ad Hoc Committee on General Investigating and Ethics asked for employee emails they believed might provide insight into possible unsafe working conditions at Dallas’ new permitting building, officials identified a handful of such communications.

“… [C]ity staff are aware of only five (5) emails … that reference working conditions at the Stemmons Building,” Assistant City Manager Majed Al-Ghafry wrote in a May 24 memo to Dallas City Council members. “The emails have been provided to the Ad Hoc Committee on Investigating and Ethics and are available upon request.”

The emails are part of an expanded probe into how the City allowed its employees to work in the 7800 N. Stemmons Fwy building before receiving the appropriate occupancy certificates. The Dallas Economic Development Corporation (EDC) Board of Directors agreed to join the investigation earlier this month to provide “third-party expertise to develop a go-forward strategy for the City-owned property at 7800 N. Stemmons Freeway,” as The Dallas Express reported. The agreement is costing Dallas $100,000 in taxpayer money.

On May 2, Jennifer Nicewander, director of the Office of Bond and Construction Management, gave a 26-page presentation with a timeline of the building purchase, inspections, improvements, and budget estimates. However, she did not explain the decision-making process, prompting committee members to request a detailed timeline of the events, which Al-Ghafry provided in a later memo.

“The City Council approved the purchase of the Stemmons Building on August 10, 2022, and the City took possession on September 23, 2022,” the memo shows. “After several different inspections … including assessment by a third-party consultant, the Office of Bond and Construction Management (BCM) began the renovations of floors 1, 2, 5, 8 and 9. As renovation continued, the scope of work expanded when existing tenants vacated their suites in the building, when their leases expired.”

On December 19, 2023, a temporary certificate of occupancy was issued, and Development Services Department (DSD) staff began moving to the fifth floor. The following February and in April, fire inspections were conducted.

“… [A]s an outcome of the April 3, 2024 inspections, a fire system issue was identified as a safety concern,” according to the memo. “With the approval of Dallas Fire-Rescue (DFR) and in accordance with the City of Dallas standard practice, a Fire Watch was immediately established on April 3, 2024, as a remediation of the identified safety concern.”

Employees were sent back to Oak Cliff six days later “until final improvements at the Stemmons Building were completed” — a scenario Ad Hoc Committee on General Investigating and Ethics chair Council Member Cara Mendelsohn (District 12) called ironic, considering the same officials responsible for issuing permits could not satisfy the requirements for one of its own buildings.

As previously reported by The Dallas Express, DSD has come under fire for periodic permit backlogs and other inefficiencies under former City Manager T.C. Broadnax. Oversight of DSD ultimately fell to Broadnax, who announced in February that he planned on resigning from his position after a majority of Dallas City Council members asked him to step down. The embattled city manager originally said he would be leaving in June, but the City of Austin hired him to lead its operations, moving Broadnax’s resignation up to May 6.

Andrew Espinoza, director and chief building official for DSD, attributed the decision to move about 70 employees back to Oak Cliff because “it was a challenge” for DSD to keep employees “on their floor.”

“For the sake of making sure there’s not going to be interruptions in construction areas, I made the decision to send them back [to Oak Cliff],” he said. “There wasn’t any … incompetency. There wasn’t [sic] any life and safety issues. I just didn’t want the minutia of staff members going back and forth, going to different floors, and creating all types of stories that they perceived to be an issue. I wanted to put a stop to that.”

Espinoza received the most scrutiny, with committee members asking him several times about what he knew and when he knew it. He claimed that “this is a project that’s had a lot of misconceptions” and “some confusion with the public.”

The EDC’s investigation will involve fact-gathering, evaluation, and recommendations. By July 31, it “will prepare a report” for interim City Manager Kimberly Tolbert that includes:

  • A complete assessment of the property’s condition, including information technology, HVAC, elevator, roof, electrical, plumbing, mechanical, parking garage, exterior lighting, security system, and environmental concerns. This entails a floor-by-floor review of work — complete or incomplete — “to ensure regulatory compliance for occupancy and move-in of City staff to each unleased floor.”
  • An estimated budget and timeline.
  • Recommendations framed as a “go forward plan” to complete the property renovation and move staff in by a certain date.

EDC officials are expected to present their report to the Dallas City Council in August.

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