In the mid-1980s, Alexandria became the first jurisdiction in Virginia to organize its code-enforcement bureau under its fire department. A few years later Art Dahlberg, who was then in charge of code enforcement for the City of Fairfax, spearheaded a movement to make a similar change in Fairfax before leading Alexandria’s Code Enforcement Bureau. Now that he has left to lead code-enforcement efforts in Richmond, City Manager Jim Hartmann has named John Catlett as the city’s next code-enforcement director.
“John has a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the statewide building code and how it pertains to new construction,” wrote City Manager Jim Hartmann in a Jan. 31 announcement of Catlett’s appointment. “He also brings a thorough understanding of the challenges faced by a historic community in ensuring its treasured older assets are preserved and kept safe and secure for their owners and the public.”
Catlett will lead a bureau with 58 employees and an annual budget of $6.4 million. His employees are charged with enforcing the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code as well as the Statewide Fire Prevention Code, a job that includes controlling construction standards and monitoring electrical work in the city. The Code Enforcement Bureau is also charged with the duty of enforcing state and city disability access and energy-conservation standards. Under Dahlberg, who led the bureau from 1997 to 2006, the bureau was forced to expand with a booming real-estate market.
“The construction volume doubled in my first year here,” said Dahlberg last August, shortly after announcing his departure for Richmond. “The city was coming out of a slowdown, and people had a lot of pent up energy. So they started building.”
The building boom continued for many years. And even though the real-estate market has cooled to an extent, the city’s construction market is still white hot. This year — under Catlett’s direction — the Code Enforcement Bureau plans to issue 22,916 new construction permits and inspect 51,788 construction sites for an estimated $600 million worth of new buildings. In 2002, by contrast, the city issued 12,737 new permits and inspected 36,383 construction sites for an estimated value of $354 million.
“John Catlett comes to Alexandria at a time when we are refocusing all our departments on managing for results,” said Hartmann. “Under his leadership, code enforcement will take a fresh look at customer service and continue to strengthen its procedures for working efficiently and effectively with the public and the development community.”
According to city records, 95 percent of the inspections are performed on the day that they are requested and 90 percent of walk-in customers are served within 10 minutes of arriving at the Code Enforcement front desk. But a recent survey of Alexandria residents showed a burgeoning dissatisfaction with the bureau. In 2004, 68 percent of respondents described the bureau’s performance as “good” and 15 percent described it as “poor.” In 2006, by contrast, 61 percent of respondents described by bureau as “good” and 19 percent described it as “poor.”
A NATIVE OF Charles Town, W.Va., Catlett was raised in Winchester, Va., and graduated from John Handley High School in 1980. He received an associate of applied science degree in public administration from Thomas Nelson Community College and has been the codes-compliance administrator for the city of Williamsburg since 1992 — a job history that gives him a background in applying code-enforcement standards to historic buildings.
“With new construction, it’s usually pretty straightforward,” said Catlett. “But with existing buildings, it’s often a matter of application.”
From 2004 to 2005, he served as president of the Virginia Building and Code Officials Association. In 2006, he won the association’s Meritorious Service Award, and he has also acted as chairman of the association’s Administrative Code Change Committee. He is also a member of the Cultural Resources Committee of the National Fire Protection Association and the Existing Building Code Committee of the International Code Council.
Catlett said that he is excited to work for a code-enforcement bureau that is organized under a fire department — a job that will include oversight of new construction, property maintenance and fire prevention.
“It will be a challenge to wear three hats,” said Catlett. “But I would describe Alexandria’s setup as the most optimal situation to have.”
He is a certified professional code administrator, a certified building official and master code professional. Before moving to Williamsburg, he held a variety of positions with the city of Winchester. He has also worked as a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the United States Army. He plans to start working for the city on Feb. 12.
“Despite the heavy demand, Alexandria code enforcement has earned a first-class reputation for delivering quality service to the public and the community it serves,” said Catlett. “I look forward to carrying on that tradition.”