Kathleen Kenny and Arthur Starz started out plainly in the wrong. Their transformation of a chicken coop into a little cottage in Topanga Canyon was a clear violation of Los Angeles County building codes and California Coastal Commission rules. But out of that converted chicken coop grew a flap that raises big questions about the power of building inspectors and how well they are supervised.
Kenny and Starz won a surprise victory in federal court when a jury agreed with their allegations that two county building inspectors were running a racket that extorted money from property owners in exchange for permits--an inexcusable abuse of power. The case Kenny and Starz mounted against the county also highlighted the ability of building inspectors to profit by mixing personal business with their on-the-job responsibilities. Allowing a building inspector's personal business to mingle with official duties is not technically illegal in many cases, but it nonetheless casts doubt on the objectivity and reliability of officials charged with protecting public safety.
Although they work in a low-profile job, building inspectors wield enormous power and can tie up an individual's biggest asset by refusing to sign off on a new home. At their best, they help guide builders through the complicated permit process, point out potential problems and suggest solutions. Their duty is to enforce rules drafted to guarantee safe, responsible construction and most perform it without fail. But at their worst, building inspectors can demand thinly veiled bribes to sign off on a permit or use their police power to retaliate against critics.
That was the focus of the lawsuit by Kenny and Starz, who alleged that inspectors urged them to contact a specific architect to bring the cottage up to code and then cracked down only after the couple refused. Such abuses arise when supervision is lax--or when supervisors act in complicity. Neither situation is acceptable. Like police officers, building inspectors are granted considerable freedom in a job where judgment is critical. When that judgment is called into question by the abusive actions of a few, all suffer.