Oyster Bay decided to assign private electrical inspectors to building projects instead of allowing consumers and contractors to choose.
But the resulting brouhaha over the potential for favoritism and increased costs is causing the town to reconsider the policy change made last month.
No other Long Island town without its own inspectors decides which firms a home or business owner must use. Instead, they keep a list of approved inspectors for applicants. Oyster Bay had done the same.
Planning and Development Commissioner Fred Ippolito notified electricians of the policy change in a Sept. 19 letter, saying the assignments would be "random."
Ten days later, five inspection companies challenged the new policy in a State Supreme Court lawsuit, and won a temporary restraining order. Their request for a preliminary injunction is expected to be considered Thursday.
"As a homeowner or a business, it's not right," said John Cochrane, who runs Long Island Electrical Inspectors Inc. of Bay Shore, one of eight firms licensed in Oyster Bay. "It takes away the right to seek competitive quotes."
Cochrane, a candidate for Islip Town Board, is not part of the suit. He said he is concerned Oyster Bay could give some firms small residential inspections, while saving lucrative commercial jobs for favorites.
Town officials said they -- not contractors -- can best choose electrical inspectors for projects seeking certificates of occupancy. But the debate over the policy change has them considering in-house inspectors, which Southold, Southampton and Riverhead now use.
"We don't have a financial stake," Oyster Bay Town Attorney Len Genova said. "We care about the residents' best interest."
Ippolito has been known to aggressively enforce town regulations. The longtime commissioner angered some Muslims last year after closing a Bethpage mosque for code violations. In March, he and the town were sued by a Woodbury ranch owner they targeted for keeping odorous mulch piles.
Russ Haven, legislative counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said Oyster Bay could be making a reasoned decision, but without explaining itself in detail, creates suspicion.
"When government acts in a way that's not transparent . . . everybody jumps to the conclusion there's something inappropriate going on," he said.
All Long Island towns require electrical underwriters to ensure work meets safety code before issuing a certificate of occupancy. All of the towns without municipal inspectors keep a list of approved private firms.
To be approved by a town, a company provides its credentials, fees, resumes of its inspectors, copies of its insurance policies and recent jobs it has performed. After doing its own research, if the town is satisfied, it adds the company to its approved list. Many of the towns' lists include the same inspection businesses.
"What's upsetting is [Oyster Bay] assigning one private business to another private business," said Charlie Gardner, government affairs representative for the National Electrical Contractors Association's Long Island chapter. "It just doesn't sit well."
Many electrical contractors have relationships with inspectors built over years of trust, he said. Others may turn to different firms depending on their expertise and size of a project.
Inspection rates range from several hundred dollars for homes to thousands for commercial sites.
"This seems to be the only area in town government where work that the town is answerable for is getting done by parties selected by homeowners or electricians," said Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto. "I think we have to go back and examine how this evolved the way it did."
But a property owner in town sees the change as slowing the building process. John Lancia recently renovated the historic Octagon Hotel in Oyster Bay hamlet into space for a fitness center, software company and six apartments.
"If an electrical contractor isn't familiar with an inspector, it just takes longer for everything, even getting them on the phone," said Lancia, who runs a Farmingdale construction firm. "The system was working."
The town said it is still determining how to manage assignments.
"What's random?" asked Steven Cohn, the Carle Place attorney representing the inspectors in the lawsuit. "Random could mean that I pick you seven times in a row, because you're my good friend."
Policy differs by town
How Long Island towns manage electrical inspections:
-- Hempstead: Consumers can choose from list of approved inspectors
-- North Hempstead: Consumers choose from a list of approved inspectors.
-- Oyster Bay: Town will assign firms to projects.
-- Huntington: Consumers choose from a list of approved inspectors.
-- Babylon: Consumers choose from a list of approved inspection companies.
-- Smithtown: Consumers choose from a list of approved inspectors
-- Islip: Consumers choose from a list of approved firms.
-- Brookhaven: Consumers pick from a list of approved firms.
-- Riverhead: Has town inspector; also lets consumers hire private firms.
-- Southold: Has town inspector that consumers must use.
-- Shelter Island: Consumers can choose from list of approved inspectors.
-- Southampton: Has in-house inspector consumers must use.
-- East Hampton: Consumers choose from a list of approved inspectors.