Updated: Tuesday, 11 Dec 2012, 12:17 PM MST
Published : Tuesday, 03 Nov 2009, 10:53 PM MST
ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - This is a story about the Rio Grande Zoo, but instead of lions, tigers and bears it's about visitor safety and buildings constructed without permits and inspections.
Uncovering the Zoo scandal requires following a trail of clues winding throughout the Albuquerque Biological Park and leading behind the scenes. This story is about negligence and mistakes, not just one big screw-up but a whole slew of them.
For example, the elephant observation deck completed last year. Impressive structure, but is it safe? Nobody can say for sure because the zoo failed to get required safety inspections or even a building permit.
"It requires one," City Planning Director Richard Dineen told KRQE News 13. The deck and a number of other construction projects at the Zoo are in violation for failing to get initial permits and final inspections, he added.
Dineen oversees Albuquerque's building inspectors who job includes monitoring permitted projects and checking for compliance with building construction and safety codes.
The most important part of any construction project is a document issued by city inspectors called the certificate of occupancy, or C.O. That piece of paper certifies that a new building has passed all its inspections.
"You should be able to go into any building anywhere in the U.S. and feel safe," Dineen said. "That's what the building codes do, it provides for the safety for the occupants.”
"That's why we say you can't occupy until you have the building approved."
Among the unpermitted projects:
If the BioPark had gotten the proper inspections for the Tingley Beach project someone might have noticed exposed re-bar in the parking lot. A tourist tripped on the hazard, suffered serious injuries, and taxpayers paid a $100,000 liability claim.
"I agree that they were improperly done, and the buck stops with me." Department of Cultural Services Director Ray Darnell told KRQE News 13. "We did not go through at the end and get the last little document which was the certificate of occupancy.
"I take the blame," Darnell continued. "We will do that, and we will take it back and go through that process because it is an important building used by literally hundreds of thousands of people."
Darnell's department covers not only the BioPark but city museums, libraries, cultural centers and events, the Kimo Theater and GOV-TV 16.
The BioPark also circumvented the law when new lights were installed in the zoo parking lot. Despite the lack of a final inspection News 13 has learned the lights have been turned on.
"I checked, and they have been used; that's correct," Darnell said. "We don't have a final, and no, they shouldn't have been used.”
"We won't use them until they get the thing done."
Turning the lights on without a proper inspection would be a danger to the public, according to Dineen.
There are more violations at the Japanese Garden and the Heritage Farm where the News 13 investigation found in nine separate cases the city BioPark broke city safety laws.
But how could all nine structures slip through the cracks?
"It's partially, Larry, because we don't have a really good system of following all of the building activities that go on at the zoo," Dineen said. The zoo and other city projects are not entitled because the city is involved, he added.
"They have to meet the code," Dineen said. "We cannot look the other way.”
"We have to get this done because it is a life-safety code."
Darnell acknowledged there is no good excuse not to comply with laws governing building permits, inspections and occupancy certificates.
"We should have followed through on finalizing some of these things and on getting the certificate of occupancies with ourselves as well as with the contractors who also did not follow through on those," he said.
Darnell promised the discrepancies uncovered by News 13 will be corrected. Meanwhile the BioPark is moving ahead with more improvements. In the coming months, there will be new exhibits for the elephants, crocodiles and the penguins.
"I have given direct instructions to everybody associated with it: You do nothing without a proper permit," Darnell said. "We understand, and I apologize to everyone in the world about it.
"But we get it, and we're going to fix it. We're going to go back and get the C.O.s on all those buildings that you presented to me."