City intervenes on boyfriend's complaint
City manager surprised to learn code inspector went to tire store
A Gaithersburg employee handled a dispute between the city manager's boyfriend and a tire company after the manager asked how to file a consumer complaint.
City Manager Angel Jones said she was surprised her question escalated into a work order for the code inspector, and will "think long and hard" about how she phrases questions to direct reports. Department heads should know not to step up services on her behalf.
Mayor Sidney A. Katz said Jones briefed him and the city council informally but that he and the council had not seen the code inspector's report.
The matter began in June when Jones' boyfriend, Ruben Heath, took his Mercury Marauder to Just Tires on North Frederick Avenue. Heath, who could not be reached for comment, believes the automobile received $1,500 in damages at the business, according to a report prepared by a city code inspector.
His concerns prompted Jones to ask Greg Ossont, director of planning and code administration, how to file a consumer complaint. The city has no consumer affairs office and refers complaints to Montgomery County, but first tries to resolve the complaint, Ossont said.
Ossont directed Paul Edwards to visit Cecil Cunagin, a Just Tires store manager.
Edwards is a commercial code inspector and contract employee who inspects Gaithersburg businesses for compliance with building, plumbing, gas, electrical and mechanical codes.
"It was an information-gathering session," Ossont said. "Paul knows him well and has a relationship with him so it was easy to find out what was going on."
Gino Renne, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994/Montgomery County Government Employees' Union, said code inspectors should not be asked to investigate consumer complaints.
"Their job is to be sure that the citizens of Gaithersburg receive the highest quality services that they can. It's not to go down and apply leverage to a merchant who happened to get in an argument with the significant other of a top official," he said. "It compromises their professionalism. It puts them in unnecessary danger. You don't do that to people."
Renne is hoping to organize workers in Gaithersburg.
Director of Code Enforcement Wes Burnette did not return calls for comment. Edwards declined to comment.
In a June 22 e-mail to Ossont entitled "Angel's Complaint," Edwards said he told the store manager that the complaint came from the city manager's office and Cunagin said he immediately knew the subject of the complaint. According to Edwards e-mail, Cunagin said that Heath told him "his wife ran the City of Gaithersburg."
Cunagin said Just Tires disagreed it was responsible for damage to Heath's car, but further review would cost $1,500.
"Mr. Heath was not happy with this offer and became a little upset..." states Edwards' e-mail.
Jones confirmed she returned to the store with Heath and told Cunagin the store needed to make things right.
The complaint was turned over to a national customer service representative, Edwards said Cunagin told him.
"Additionally, the statement that Ms. Jones was Mr. Heath's wife also played into this decision," wrote Edwards. Edwards wrote that he told Cunagin that city officials would advise Heath "to either work with Just Tires Customer Service or to contact Montgomery County, Consumer Affairs to resolve the issue."
No complaints have been filed with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection, said Eric Friedman, director.
After The Gazette provided Cunagin a copy of Edwards' complaint, Jim Davis, a spokesman with The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, which owns all Just Tires outlets, said all customers are treated the same.
"I'm not sure exactly why [Edwards] would have gone," Katz said. "If this was a consumer affairs concern, then Montgomery County should have been the one to look into the matter."
Councilwoman Cathy Drzyzgula did not know why Ossont would send Edwards to investigate a consumer complaint, but said the matter is only an issue if Edwards flashed his badge or threatened the store manager.
As city manager, Jones determines internal affairs investigations at City Hall. Jones, Ossont and others have touted the city's philosophy of customer service and addressing resident requests.
When asked for examples of other consumer complaints handled by city staff, Ossont pointed to landlord-tenant disputes and complaints about cable television services.
The city's neighborhood services division officially oversees landlord-tenant relations and the city has recently expanded cable franchising agreements.