The job has changed for Tom Stolz, but his mission remains the same: Public safety.
Stolz, 54, for three decades a police officer, doesn’t see his role directing the new joint city-county building code enforcement operation as much different from the job he left: deputy chief at the Wichita Police Department.
Here’s the difference: Stolz’s performance merging two code enforcement operations is under the microscope even more, as city and county leaders look at code enforcement as a test case for future city-county consolidation.
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For three decades, Stolz enforced the law. Now, he’s enforcing building codes to guarantee that Wichita residents and business owners have safe, quality buildings in which to live and work – a significant underpinning of the city’s economy.
“There’s a code out there in both cases, a law, and it works its way down from the international and federal levels to the municipalities,” Stolz said. “So in that instance, I’m very comfortable with that part of the job: Reading code, interpreting code, watching it evolve through court decisions.”
It’s been a big change for the man who in many ways was the face of the Wichita Police Department, but a change Stolz actively sought.
“After 30 years on the police department, you’ve seen it and done it all, some of which you never wanted to see or do in the first place,”’ he said. “A very great career, and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. But you eventually get to a place where you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do. Fifty-four years old, you know. Thirty years on the police department and you ain’t getting any younger.”
So about a year ago Stolz began looking for a change, initially in law enforcement. He needed a new challenge, but was intent on staying in Wichita and was seriously considering joining the staff of new Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter.
At about the same time, the city and Sedgwick County came up empty in their first search for a director to head the consolidation of code enforcement.
“We had some good folks come forward with a code enforcement background,” said Ron Holt, Sedgwick County assistant manager. “But as we went through those interviews, it became very clear that we already had people in the city and county code departments who can do the technical aspects of the job. What we really needed was someone who could lead, manage and inspire folks. Ultimately, that person didn’t have to be the consummate code professional.”
Management background a plus
Management skill is also what hooked Wichita City Manager Robert Layton.
“Tom’s law enforcement background gave him the right skill set and knowledge base for the enforcement side of codes, so I’d agree with him. It is about public safety,” Layton said.
“That’s not necessarily why we picked him, though. It was really his understanding of customer service, the need for a joint vision and mission for code enforcement that’s created with the industry and staff. Most importantly, I feel like he’s delivered on that.”
Stolz had no illusions that he’d land the job. But as he wound through a series of city and county interviews, his interest in the job grew.
“Because the whole issue of mergers and consolidations is very interesting,” he said. “The first thing I had to ask myself was should this even be governed? I tell people all the time that for a guy who’s worked in government all his life, I’m almost anti-government. I believe that if you can carve government out of something, things get done better.”
But code enforcement’s customers – builders, real estate brokers, buyers – convinced Stolz that the code enforcement office is essential for public safety, and a balanced and fair building market.
“We’ve got to have this and it’s got to be government, as the referees of the market,” he said.
Today, that’s what Stolz is: a referee, both for customers and as he blends two staffs together, located at two different sites. He’s busy writing an organizational plan to merge the two code enforcement operations, including the possible merger of city and county animal control, and is working with John Schlegel, the planning director, on a new downtown site for code enforcement and zoning. The new office will be a one-stop shop for builders and developers.
Stolz is blending well with the city’s union employees, officials said.
“Tom’s a good man. We’re sitting down with him and basically working through any problems that arise. I think that’s part of the attraction for Tom. He enjoys a challenge,” said Harold Schlechtweg, organizing agent for the Service Employees International Union Local 513. “From our point of view, they couldn’t have picked a better guy to head that up. He’s a straight-up guy.”
Schlechtweg said he was worried that the new code chief would “sacrifice the interests of the employees to special interests.”
“I don’t see that with Tom,” he said. “I think he has assurances from both governments that he’s going to be able to put together a quality organization.”
Stolz also is a scientist of sorts, at the helm of what city and county officials admit is their first grand consolidation experiment.
How well code enforcement fits together will have a huge impact on the future of further consolidated city-county services, Layton and Holt said.
“Most voters tend to think consolidation is about saving money, and over time it is, but we need to see efficiencies that aren’t at the expense of the services we provide taxpayers.,” Holt said. “So this will certainly be watched closely by all of us to see how it works. We think we’re off to a good start. It’s the leader, the planning and the systems you put in place. And then the leader makes it work.”