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WECT INVESTIGATES: Carolina Beach officials claim county overstepped jurisdiction in condo fire investigation, allege possible ethics violations

Updated: Apr. 12, 2021 at 3:26 PM EDT
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CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - The actions of New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chair Julia Olson-Boseman are being questioned by the Town of Carolina Beach after she allegedly directed the county manager to instruct county staff to conduct an investigation into the recent condominium fire in Carolina Beach.

But Carolina Beach officials say county staff were acting outside of their jurisdiction to do so, however, the county disagrees.

There are also ethical questions regarding the actions since, according to the emails, Olson-Boseman, who is an attorney, said she was legally representing some of the fire victims.

Emails between Carolina Beach officials and staff outline in detail the actions New Hanover County staff took following the fire, and possible repercussions the county might face.

The fire, which destroyed an entire building and displaced several residents, broke out on April 2 at the Paradise Cove Condominiums off Spencer Farlow Drive.

RELATED: ‘I’m scared people are going to die’: 911 call reveals chaotic scene as massive fire ripped through Carolina Beach condo complex.

The fire is already under investigation by several agencies including the Carolina Police Department, the Carolina Beach Fire Department, the State Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

So why did New Hanover County decide to get involved?

Emails obtained by WECT show the county’s involvement first came a few days after the fire, when Mayor LeAnn Pierce notified Fire Chief Alan Griffin that she had a conversation with Olson-Boseman. In an email from Griffin to Carolina Beach Town Manager Bruce Oakley, Griffin said Pierce told him that Olson-Boseman had indicated she would be representing several residents of the condominium complex.

“She also said that Ms. Boseman informed her that she had concerns about the fire alarm system and fire extinguishers not having a current inspection and that they were not up to date,” Griffin wrote in the email.

However, on April 6, Griffin sent out a statement regarding the status of the fire protection systems and said that the system was in compliance with required annual inspections. Griffin also said he told Pierce that evening that all fire extinguishers were up to date and current.

RELATED: CBFD: Fire protection system was in compliance at time of Paradise Cove condos fire.

The following day, Griffin said he received a phone call from New Hanover County’s building safety manager, who told him the county inspection division would be going to the property to conduct their own safety inspection, and that they were directed by Olson-Boseman to do so.

“At this point, I expressed that I had 2 areas of concern. First being that NHC Building Inspections had no jurisdiction to be completing a life safety inspection within the Town of Carolina Beach corporate limits and also given the fact that there are no open building permits on that property for other trades to be performing an inspection on that site. I stated to him that they were operating outside their scope of practice,” Griffin wrote.

“The second concern being that I had received a phone call the night before from Mayor Pierce stating that Ms. Boseman had informed her that she was legally representing several of the property owners in relation to the fires. I felt that this was a conflict of interest that Ms. Boseman was planning on coming with the NHC Building Inspectors to tour the property of clients she is legally representing.”

Following his contact with the county inspector, Griffin reached out to New Hanover County Fire Chief Donnie Hall to express his concerns, and then to the North Carolina Office of State Fire Marshal, according to his email.

“I received a phone call from Brian Taylor, Chief of the North Carolina Office of State Fire Marshal asking me to bring him up to speed with the situation. I explained the events that took place throughout the morning, and he strongly agreed with my position. He told me that he would be reaching out to the New Hanover County Manager to discuss the repercussions of the NHC Building Inspectors operating outside of their jurisdiction,” Griffin said.

“On Wednesday, April 7, 2021, I was made aware by our Fire Chief and Building Inspector that they were told inspectors from New Hanover County were instructed to come to the location of an ongoing fire investigation to do safety inspections. We felt there were jurisdictional issues and that their involvement could possibly compromise an ongoing investigation and/or undermine our staff. Our Fire Chief and Building Inspector informed the county inspectors of this and consulted with building and fire officials from the state about it,” Town Manager Bruce Oakley said in a statement on Monday.

“We continue to enjoy a great working relationship with our colleagues from the County and the other municipalities in New Hanover County. We appreciate the help many of them provided and offered during and after the fire at the Paradise Cove condominium complex.”

While questions of jurisdiction are clear from the Town of Carolina Beach, County Manager Chris Coudriet said it was not an overstep.

“New Hanover County performs trades inspections in Carolina Beach, and a small team of inspectors was sent at the request of the Board of Commissioners chair. They were able to help educate residents about fire code and the trades, refer them to the Carolina Beach Building Inspector in cases where fire damage on exterior walls was present, and answer questions that residents had. It was not intended to be an overstep jurisdictionally; it was merely a way to support and educate residents,” Coudriet said in a statement to WECT.

Olson-Boseman also provided a statement regarding her role and said her actions were due to concerns for friends and other residents still living at the complex.

“First of all, Carolina Beach is in New Hanover County and this certainly is not a jurisdictional fight. I’m sorry if their feelings are hurt but if they’d been doing their jobs I wouldn’t have had to go down there and respond to a fire alarm for friends who live in the complex because they weren’t home and they were terrified. Can you imagine seeing your neighbors jumping out of windows? I have numerous friends who live in the complex and didn’t feel safe going back in their places so I asked the County Manager what to do and he sent down inspections to see if we could help. That is my job and my privilege, to help people. As far as who I may be representing, if anyone, is attorney/client privileged,” Olson-Boseman said.

Despite the county’s insistence that it had done nothing wrong, Carolina Beach Building Inspector Darrel Johnson also took issue with the county’s involvement in an outline of the events that took place on April 7.

In an email sent to town officials, Johnson said when he got on site that morning New Hanover County Building Safety Director Nickolas Gadzekpo detailed the actions he planned on taking.

“I first asked Mr. Gadzekpo upon whose authority he had to come into Carolina Beach to conduct inspections and fire investigations, which he replied it was the County Manager. He stated that he planned on knocking on unit doors and ask the residents if he could inspect their units and ask questions about any discrepancies or violations to their units. I informed him that the Town of Carolina Beach and myself would not be part of this act nor involved in any way with their visit,” Johnson wrote in the email.

Johnson, in response to the actions taken by the county also reached out to the Office of State Fire Marshall, where he was told he might want to contact the North Carolina Bar Association because of possible conflicts on interest and ethics.

“Once I got back to the office, I contacted NCDOI OSFM Carl Martin about the situation. As I explained the situation, Carl Martin informed that I may need to contact the NC Bar and turn the Council person into the Board for her actions, as they may conflict with the ethical requirements of being a clients’ attorney and using the position on the Commission to have this done,” Johnson wrote.

The county also said they had reached out to the state, but got a different response than Carolina Beach did.

“Our Building Safety team spoke with the Office of the State Fire Marshal at the North Carolina Department of Insurance (NCDOI) and they have affirmed that because the county performs trades inspections and the county inspections team was there to inform people of who to contact with questions or concerns and to educate them, they did not act outside of their scope of responsibilities,” according to a statement from New Hanover County.

WECT has requested a statement from the Office of State Fire Marshal for its opinion on the actions taken by New Hanover County. A statement has not yet been provided.

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