Las Vegas Review-Journal
March 8, 2008
BUILDING SAFETY: County yet to release audit
Consultant has delivered his analysis
Top county officials are sitting on a bombshell report on how the county handles complaints that sometimes pit building safety against the interests of property owners, such as powerful companies running lucrative casinos.
"Talk to the county," Michael Kessler, a New York-based consultant, said recently when asked by phone about the delay in release of his "process audit" of complaints that go to the county's building division or fire department. The report was expected to come out in February, although the county's contract set Jan. 15 as the original due date.
Since the county awarded the contract to Kessler in November, suspicion about lapses in building safety has spread from two initial hotels to the Flamingo and Monte Carlo.
Kessler delivered his report to Clark County on Feb. 20, according to county spokesman Erik Pappa, who did not know when the final revised version will be made public. High-level administrators were "fact-checking" the Kessler draft, county spokeswoman Stacey Welling said.
But commissioners had not seen the final version, so the county contends Kessler's report is not a public document.
"Mr. Kessler determines when his report is final," Pappa wrote by e-mail Wednesday.
Apart from the Kessler report, the county has been looking on its own, as a result of the hotel controversy, at revamping its building division and fire department, Welling said. The auditor's eventual recommendations "probably will work into" any ideas that county staff already are developing. County commissioners must approve department restructuring, but staff has not given them any proposals so far, she noted.
Kessler's audit started in November, shortly after the county began scrutinizing some completed hotel remodeling jobs, triggered when the Review-Journal investigated work that took place at the Rio without permits or inspections.
The newspaper launched its probe in the summer after a former Rio remodeling worker could not get the county to take his 2006 complaint seriously. The county's renewed scrutiny of remodeling at the Rio and Harrah's Las Vegas has confirmed the newspaper's conclusion that some of the undocumented work also was substandard, requiring repairs.
Several county commissioners said they prefer Kessler's report to be thorough rather than a rush job.
"It's health and safety issues. We have to react as soon as we can," Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said.
"We want it as soon as possible, but we want it done right," Commissioner Bruce Woodbury said.
Safes are unsafe
In other recent hotel activity, the Review-Journal learned that the Monte Carlo didn't have required permits or inspections when it inserted guest safes into walls in 2005 and 2006.
MGM-Mirage executive Alan Feldman admitted the lack of permits last week, but pointed out that the hotel itself reported the problem to county building officials after learning of the situation in December.
About 15 percent of the Monte Carlo's 3,000 safes are being reinstalled because, in addition to the lack of oversight by building inspectors, those installations broke the building code. The safes were not fire-rated, which jeopardized the ability of fire-rated walls -- which separate one unit from the next, or from the corridor -- to withstand fire. The reinstallation should be over by late March, according to Feldman.
A check of county building records shows the Monte Carlo's plans for a fix of the unsafe safes were reviewed Jan. 18, and a permit for reinstallation issued on Jan. 31. An unrelated rooftop welding accident set the outside top of the Monte Carlo on fire on Jan. 25.
But the newspaper's check of records could not determine that the county ever formally recorded a violation by the Monte Carlo for the problem. In the past, Assistant County Manager Phil Rosenquist has said county policy is not to be punitive toward property owners who cooperate on solving code problems.
But keeping a history of events, including the discovery of violations, is not necessarily a punitive step. In the present record-keeping system, some fixes of violations seem to get classified simply as property improvements.
Ironically, the Monte Carlo had installed the safes to be an enhancement, not a hazard. Safes are one of many amenities required for a hotel to win AAA's Four-Diamond rating, which the Monte Carlo did the following year, 2007.
Problems at Flamingo
Around the time the Monte Carlo was upgrading its rooms with safes, the Flamingo Las Vegas was remodeling guest rooms, during which workers snapped a post-tension cable. But the county didn't learn of the 2006 accident until lately. Any single such cable is part of a grid that is imbedded in floors and ceiling slabs and then kept taut, to strengthen the concrete.
Also, a long-term water leak in one Flamingo guest tower is eroding some mandatory fire sealing, which protects against the spread of smoke during a fire. The freshly discovered fire-seal problem is outlined in a Jan. 16 permit to repair 56 guest bathrooms.
Harrah's Entertainment recently researched the snapped cable's history at the county's request. Terry Meistering, a Harrah's executive, described it in a letter to the county building division dated Feb. 21. She is vice president of design and construction for the western division of Harrah's Entertainment, which owns the Flamingo as well as the Rio and Harrah's Las Vegas.
A lead supervisor on the remodeling decided on his own without consulting an engineer, Meistering wrote, that the snapped cable -- in the slab ceiling of the 16th floor of one tower -- did not threaten structural integrity. So the cable did not need an engineering solution. Her letter doesn't name the supervisor, but indicates he or she is "no longer employed by Flamingo or any of its affiliates."
Harrah's Entertainment executive Marybel Batjer declined to identify that supervisor or say whether any higher managers also knew in 2006 that workers had snapped the cable.
The Meistering letter also includes a recent engineer's statement that the lead supervisor made the correct decision. John S. Kubota visited the Flamingo on Feb. 5 and submitted calculations to support his finding.
The county's Welling said Flamingo workers have not yet identified the source of the water leak that damaged fire sealing, so they will continue to explore upward, through a column of rooms on higher floors. She attributed the need for fire-seal repairs to "aging construction," not faulty remodeling.
update on rio, harrah's
At Harrah's on the Strip and the Rio, certain guest rooms are still out of service as county and corporate investigations -- and repairs -- continue into the remodeling that prompted Kessler's hiring.
The Rio has almost 90 rooms off line on the Ipanema ninth floor and 30 scattered on other floors of the same tower, Batjer, Harrah's vice president of public policy and communications, also said Friday.
At Harrah's, about 130 rooms remain off line. Some of the repair work has been prolonged because the hotel is incorporating further remodeling touches, she noted.
Controversy moves to court
The county fire department met with staff from the Clark County District Attorney's office last week, as part of ongoing deliberations on whether the district attorney will prosecute the Rio or Harrah's or employees, based on material compiled by fire officials, Deputy Fire Chief Girard Page said.
Based on a separate file sent to the district attorney by the Clark County building division for building code violations at the same two hotels, two men will be arraigned in Justice Court on April 1. One man is current head of facilities at the Rio, the other is current head at Harrah's.
Kessler's original contract paid $50,000 for his firm, Kessler International, to study the complaint system in the county's building division. But a December addendum spelled out Kessler would also study the complaint process in the county fire department, for another $20,000.
Contact reporter Joan Whitely at email@example.com or (702) 383-0268.