By Jack King
A Curry County restaurant owner has charged that over-regulation and a “vendetta” by a state electrical inspector forced him to close his restaurant in December.
But city and state officials said questions were raised about whether the restauranteur — Will Cockrell, owner of The Restaurant at Fox Run — followed proper, even legal, procedures in efforts to open the restaurant.
Cockrell said last month he contacted State Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, to help facilitate his problem with inspectors and to help get his wife’s builder’s license reinstated. Crook confirmed she contacted state officials at least once at Cockrell’s request.
Fox Run has since reopened. Cockrell said the reopening was facilitated by officials in the Construction Industries Division in Santa Fe after he contacted Crook.
Cockrell said inspectors have acted “like policemen.”
“I believe their function is to help people get into business,” Cockrell said.
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Cockrell said State Electrical Inspector Dorman Austin was behind actions by city and state inspectors that led to his restaurant being closed in December.
City and state officials denied any improper action by Austin.
“We’re here to support and encourage economic development, but we also have an obligation to protect the health, safety and welfare of New Mexico citizens,” said Wayne Dotson, chief investigator of the state Construction Industries Division.
Austin said problems with Fox Run began on Sept. 26, when he inspected electrical work at the restaurant and noticed what looked like recent construction in the lobby.
Austin said he talked with city building inspector Terry Martin and both felt something was wrong.
“We remembered a handball court six to eight feet below grade ran the full length of the west side, with a partition wall and windows. As you come into the dining area there is a raised floor that’s over the handball court, and below the floor, in the basement, there are light fixtures,” he said.
The Fox Run building plans Cockrell submitted to the city show the raised floor already existing. But, Austin said, officials could not find a permit on file for building the floor.
The absence of a permit was important, because it raised the possibility the work was done by an unlicensed contractor and the floor and wiring did not meet code.
Also, Cockrell had reached an agreement with the state electrical bureau’s technical advisory committee earlier in the year that pre-existing wiring in the building did not have to be brought up to commercial building standards, so whether the work had been instigated by Cockrell or the previous owner was at issue, Austin said.
On Sept. 26, Martin issued Cockrell a temporary certificate of occupancy with a Dec. 1 expiration date printed on its face. The certificate states “need plans for floor in west dining area and hood over dishwasher.”
Cockrell said he did not act on any of the requirements printed on the certificate prior to Dec. 1. He said he thought the expiration date was Jan. 1.
“I never looked at the thing, to be honest with you,” he said.
Austin said on Dec. 12, when he went to Fox Run to make a final inspection of the electrical work, he also asked to see the wiring for the lighting under the raised floor. But, Cockrell refused to let him inside the building to inspect anything, he said.
According to city records, the city of Clovis also issued a notice to cease occupying the building on Dec. 12, noting its previous requirements and stating “No certificate of occupancy shall be issued … until (a building) has received its electrical and mechanical/plumbing finals.”
Both Austin and Clovis city inspector Pete Wilt said they sent letters on the matter to the state Construction Industries Division shortly afterward.
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In December, criminal investigators from the CID contacted Cockrell, saying they had discovered that Cockrell’s wife, JoAnn Cockrell, had applied for the restaurant’s building permit as its contractor, even though her builder’s license had expired in 2002. Applying for a building permit with an invalid license is a criminal offense, Dotson said.
Cockrell said when he and his wife moved from their previous address to Fox Run, the letter notifying her of the need to renew her license was not forwarded.
“We weren’t aware of that, that was over a year ago. There had to be something where we were told, ‘You’re not a builder,’” he said.
However, Dotson said state law requires a licensee must report a change of address to CID in writing and that requirement is covered in an exam each licensee must pass.
Cockrell said after he was told by the CID investigators the fine for his wife’s infraction would be $7,500, he called Crook to say the fine “seemed a little exorbitant.”
“I suppose she called Santa Fe. When we met at city hall he (the investigator) came in and said he was on the phone to his boss. His boss had agreed to reduce the fine from 10 percent to 3 percent,” he said. The ultimate fine was about $2,600, he said.
Crook confirmed she called the division on the Cockrells’ behalf.
“I called the department and mentioned we’re trying to be more business friendly. I said we have a hard time in rural areas and a business is only open a little time before we shut it down,” she said.
Dotson said he and other CID officials met with the Cockrells in Santa Fe the week of Jan. 5. As a result of the meeting, JoAnn Cockrell was able to get her builder’s license reinstated and Dotson made a call to the city of Clovis that helped get the city building permit reissued under JoAnn Cockrell’s name, he said.
Dotson said no political pressure was exerted on him to meet with the Cockrells.
“Cockrell came here to complain about Austin. We tried to put that aside and look at the heart of the case. We wanted some resolution to it, because we are here to facilitate economic development, not to hinder people who want to do something positive with their lives,” Dotson said.
At the same time, Dotson defended Austin.
“I don’t think Dorman was doing anything to hinder. It was his responsibility to make sure the building was safe, first,” he said.
Wilt said a city inspector has inspected the restaurant — including the raised floor — and found it safe. A different state electrical inspector — Carl Kennedy from Roswell — has inspected and passed the new construction’s wiring. However, no one has inspected the wiring under the raised floor, he said.