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Issue: 9/03

Every so often, the question will come up: "Can a plumbing and/or gas fitting inspector legally file for a permit and perform plumbing or gas fitting in the city or town they work for?" The response elicits a wide range of opinions and interpretations, usually sparking a debate.

A couple of years ago, I decided to try to untangle this perplexity of words and sentences in Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 142, Section 12. I wrote a letter to the State Ethics Commission. The good news is that I received a response, and I must say, it was not complicated. It was more like dizzying. This is the kind of stuff you take one look at and head right for the Motrin; it's legal mumbo jumbo at its best. If anyone would like a copy, give me a call, and I will gladly send you one. Just make sure your brother-in-law the nuclear physicist is there to read it to you. Now, I had to look up how to spell physicist, so I will try to explain this section of M.G.L. 142, 12 in my own simple words.

First, if you are a full- or part-time plumbing and/or gas fitting inspector, and you are paid an annual salary, you may not perform plumbing or gas fitting in that city or town. You may work in other cities and towns outside of your jurisdiction.

Next, if you are a full- or part-time plumbing and/or gas fitting inspector and are not paid an annual salary, but are paid on a per-inspection basis, you may work in your city or town, but you must have the work inspected by others.

That's it, plain and simple. Now, anyone can twist the words around to mean what they want, and the more you read it, the more confusing it gets. So, like all regulations, we must try to figure out what the intent of the law is and take it from there.

Most large- and medium-sized cities and towns employ a full-time plumbing/gas fitting inspector. Full-time usually means the inspector is paid an annual salary, receives benefits and vacation time, etc., and has chosen this profession as his/her career. Most small cities and towns employ a part-time plumbing/gas fitting inspector. Part time usually means the inspector does not receive an annual salary and is paid by a different method, sometimes per inspection; therefore he/she does not receive any benefits. This inspector has not chosen this as a career and does something else; in most cases, he/she runs a plumbing business or works as a plumber in the same city or town where he/she is employed as an inspector. This is very common, and therein lies the intent.

Inspectors that are paid an annual salary are usually full time, and therefore, less likely to run a plumbing business and be in competition with other plumbing contractors in that area. The following is an excerpt from the reply I received from the State Ethics Commission, taken from a decision in a court case:

"Moreover, in 12, the Legislature distinguished between salaried and non-salaried plumbing inspectors, providing that only those plumbing inspectors who are paid per inspection are permitted to perform work within their municipality. This distinction evidences a legislative intent to hold inspectors who are paid an annual salary to the highest duty of loyalty to their communities by prohibiting all work within the community, while permitting some flexibility for inspectors who are paid on a per inspection basis."

In the MA General Law, there is no distinction between full- or part-time inspectors, with the assumption that a full-time inspector would not own and operate a plumbing business and be in competition with the very contractors for whom they would be issuing permits and inspecting. I have heard many stories about just that. Take this case, for example: a plumbing contractor wins a nice job by beating out the plumbing contractor who is also the plumbing inspector. There goes some, if not all, of his profits. The inspector, now upset, will make the plumber jump through fire hoops, hold up inspections, make up his own rules and interpretations of the code, and on and on. And this is for someone the inspector knows and probably grew up with. God forbid a plumber from out of town gets a job over the inspector; they might as well just pack it up. I believe this is the primary reason for M.G.L. 142, 12. As explained in the court decision, it holds the inspector to the highest duty of loyalty to his/her communities, and not to a business that may be more important to him/her.

Unfortunately, most plumbing contractors will never challenge an inspector, simply because they don't have the time, so usually, they end up doing whatever the inspector wants, even if it is not in the code. Slowly but surely, we need to start weeding out these indignant inspectors who have been dictating their own version of the code for years. Perhaps attrition or the mandatory continuing education program for all plumbing and gas fitting inspectors would be the best ways to get some uniformity back in the code and the inspection process.

I believe there should be more full-time plumbing and gas fitting inspectors, or by General Law, inspectors that are paid an annual salary and that are serious about making the job their career. The days of thinking that being a plumbing inspector is a great retirement job are long gone; inspectors have always gotten a bad rap for just that. Unfortunately, the blame lies right on those inspectors that thought they were taking a retirement job and never took the job seriously, didn't bother to keep up with the code, and never put much effort into the job.

A few years back, there was legislation presented that would require cities and towns of a certain population to employ a full-time plumbing/gas fitting inspector. Perhaps this bill can be revisited. And for those small towns that don't need a full-time inspector, one inspector could work for two or more towns; this is being done right now in some areas, and successfully.

Remember that part of an inspector's job is to deal with the public. You could be the most knowledgeable inspector in the state, but if you lack basic people skills, like cooperation, consideration, and patience, you should quit and make room for someone that can do the job right.