MANCHESTER - Alderman-at-Large Joseph Kelly Levasseur said it took an angry call to Mayor Ted Gatsas to finally get verbal permission to reopen his restaurant, Theo's, more than two years ago after battling with the city over repairs that needed to be made after a fire in December 2010.
The allegation of special treatment to Levasseur outraged the mayor, but Levasseur insisted it was Gatsas who paved the way for Theo's to reopen at 102 Elm St., even though not all of the work the city required had been done, and still isn't finished more than two years after reopening.
A letter from a code enforcement officer March 9, 2011, revoked Theo's certificate of occupancy, but it is at the heart of controversy because Planning and Community Development Director Leon LaFreniere now says Theo's never needed such a certificate in the first place.
"I had to call Mayor Gatsas to get them to let me open my business," Levasseur said, adding he is no friend of Gatsas. Levasseur accused the mayor of recently calling the Planning Department several times to see whether Theo's has a valid certificate of occupancy even now.
"I never heard of an occupancy permit before," Levasseur said. "They told me I could open."
Theo's reopened for St, Patrick's Day 2011. "I called (the mayor) about two weeks before. I let him have it," Levasseur said.
"The mayor said he would take care of it. The mayor made inquiries and called me back and said they had backed off on all their ridiculous demands and that they were going to allow me to open."
Gatsas was angry when reached by phone recently, claiming he never approved preferential treatment for Levasseur. At the time, Levasseur was a lawyer who had formerly served as an alderman and was known to be highly critical of government on his local access television show. He was sworn in as alderman-at-large in 2012.
"That is absolutely and unequivocally untrue," Gatsas said. "I would never tell anyone to give verbal approval. I told them to work with him" on any outstanding issues, Gatsas said.
Last month, Gatsas issued a directive saying city inspectors will no longer be able to order the immediate closure of a business without the approval of a department head.
The directive was issued after the outdoor patio at KC's Rib Shack was closed a few weeks earlier because of a dozen violations. The New Hampshire Union Leader reported a code enforcement officer found the restaurant's tiki bar did not have proper plumbing and that the bar and deck had been constructed without permits.
Levasseur was given verbal approval to reopen Theo's in March 2011 and was not treated differently from anyone else, according to LaFreniere, who said the city had made mistakes along the way handling Theo's case.
Max Sink, deputy director of building regulations, believes he gave the verbal OK to reopen, even though emails in the Code Enforcement Division's file on Theo's between he and Levasseur showed Sink believed Theo's reopened in violation of the law three months after the fire. (See related story below.)
LaFreniere, Sink and Code Enforcement Officer Jim Tierney gave different answers over the last three weeks when asked whether Theo's has a valid certificate of occupancy. LaFreniere said two weeks ago that Theo's did indeed have a valid certificate of occupancy. But he changed his response last week, saying Theo's didn't need a certificate of occupancy because it was grandfathered when Levasseur bought the building in 2009.
The building had previously been used as a restaurant and there had been no major renovations. LaFreniere said Theo's didn't need a new certificate of occupancy after the fire because renovations didn't cost more than half the building's assessed valuation.
The Tierney letter revoking Theo's certificate of occupancy contained "mistakes," LaFreniere said.
Making it clear he was not discussing a specific case, Robert B. Farley, deputy state fire marshal, said he believes a certificate of occupancy would be required after substantial renovations if the property was unusable and could not be occupied during the renovations.
Theo's was closed for three months after the fire. Renovations totaled about $37,000.
Two weeks ago, Tierney said he still didn't believe Theo's has a legal certificate of occupancy.
"In my opinion, I don't see anything in the record that says he was reinstated. I wrote the letter to revoke it and haven't been told otherwise," Tierney said.
Sink's most recent position was that Theo's original certificate of occupancy letter, dated Nov. 18, 2009, bearing LaFreniere's stamped signature, was verbally "unrevoked," allowing the restaurant to reopen.
LaFreniere also said a draft of a conditional certificate of occupancy letter dated March 17, 2011, in Theo's code enforcement file should have been sent to Levasseur. Even though LaFreniere doesn't believe Theo's needs a certificate of occupancy, he said the draft will be updated and sent as soon as Levasseur finishes the work to "complete the file," but it will not be called a "certificate of occupancy.''"(The letter) will be basically indicating work covered under the permits is complete and that occupancy is permitted," LaFreniere said.
It's essentially the same thing as a certificate of occupancy, LaFreniere said.
LaFreniere said he only recently learned that Levasseur still hasn't connected the "make-up air unit,'' which was the original sticking point in obtaining approval to reopen. The unit will replace the air that is exhausted from the kitchen exhaust hood, LaFreniere said, adding he believes it will be connected "imminently."
LaFreniere was clear that with or without a certificate of occupancy permit: "The Planning and Community Development Department considers the occupancy of 102 Elm St. to be appropriate and valid as evidenced by the issuance of subsequent permits."
LaFreniere said Levasseur has had permission to reopen all along because inspectors signed off on an in-house checklist in March 2011 that all repairs had been completed or were in the process of getting done, even though there is nothing to that effect in writing except the checklist.
Restoration Management, which was hired to do the renovations, sued Levasseur, claiming non-payment of $22,500. Levasseur said he hasn't been paid in full by his insurance company and said he has a countersuit against the contractor.
Levasseur said he didn't see any reason for a news story about his restaurant permits.
"I have my permits. I pay my fines and fees for 30 years," Levasseur said. "I never had a problem."
Levasseur wanted to know what was behind the concern over his permits, whether someone was trying to make him look bad in the newspaper.
"I didn't even know they had a file with a letter that said I didn't have an occupancy permit," Levasseur said. "How come no one called me?"