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Audit alleges nepotism, other ethical problems at Seattle's building department

caption: Apartment construction in Seattle.
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Apartment construction in Seattle.
Flickr Photo/clappstar (CC-BY-NC-ND)

A new city audit accuses Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections of ethical lapses, conflicts of interest, and nepotism.

Of the department employees interviewed by the auditor, 30% said they had concerns.

It’s well-known that it takes a long time to get a construction permit in Seattle. This is frustrating for home builders, for example, because delays make projects more expensive, which makes housing more expensive for renters and home buyers.

According to the audit, builders with influence and access to city staff get their projects moved along faster. This includes members of the trade group Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties, which meets regularly with city staff.

Some of those staff have secondary jobs in the industry. Many staffers don’t file financial disclosure forms, which would make potential conflicts of interest visible. Managers prioritize certain projects, going against established priorities, such as affordable housing.

Some staff told the auditor they believe relatives of employees advance more quickly in their careers.

The auditor's report also says the Department of Construction and Inspections isn’t using the city's racial equity toolkit consistently enough to understand who’s being harmed during the permitting process.

In addition to the ethical concerns listed, the audit outlined several ways the department could make the permitting process faster and more consistent.

In the audit, the department expressed support for many reforms that would address the auditor's concerns.

Friday morning, the auditor will present his findings to the city council. Nathan Torgelson, director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, will attend the presentation before Dan Strauss and other members of the land use committee.

"We appreciate and take seriously the recommendations in the report," department spokesperson Bryan Stevens told KUOW. He said the department has already implemented some of the recommendations and looks forward to working with the Mayor's Office "to address other key items to improve the customer's permitting experience."

Councilmember Strauss told KUOW that while he expected a lot of what was included in the audit, some of the findings came as a surprise.

"The ethical issues that were raised is one of those areas and it needs to be addressed as soon as possible," he said, adding that he'd be asking for a follow-up audit.

The issue seems to be one of unclear policy, he said.

"There needs to be clear lines, because for employees, if they don't know that they are engaging in unethical behavior, then they don't know not to do it."

Mayor Bruce Harrell is reviewing the auditor's report to learn from its findings, according to spokesperson Callie Craighead. "Mayor Harrell is committed to reducing red tape and ensuring the permit process is swift, transparent, and objective as we work to support the development of needed housing."

Craighead said the mayor's office understands that the Department of Construction and Inspections has reviewed and revised several policies related to the Financial Interest Statement process and has scheduled staff training on ethics. "We are hopeful other recommendations outlined in the report can be quickly implemented by department management to address these ethical concerns," she added.

Erich Armbruster is a builder and a member of Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties. When asked about the meetings between builders and staff mentioned in the report, he told KUOW that while those meetings aren't perfect, they "developed as a means for providing feedback to [the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections] indicating when their systems and procedures are working, and when they aren’t."

He said members of Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties are often asked by the department "for specific examples to illustrate an issue or question raised during the meeting" and both parties "are careful to point out the forum is not to be used to prioritize a particular permit application."

Update notice, Thursday 10/19/23 at 1:30 p.m.: This story was updated to include new comments from Seattle councilmember Dan Strauss and Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties member Erich Armbruster.

Update notice, Thursday 10/19/23 at 5:00pm: This story was updated to include new comments from Mayor Bruce Harrell's office.

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