What the hell is going on at City Hall?
In the fifth and final City Council public hearing today on the June 5th building collapse on Market Street, the public finally got a chance to speak. Witnesses testified about a city where unscrupulous contractors run amok, and an administration where public safety has taken a back seat to politics and commerce, with deadly results.
Jim Foster, editor of the Northwest Independent, talked about how the public hearings have only been the beginning "of the process that tells the truth about how a city unraveled its own codes, played politics with due diligence, let down the citizenry, and now we have seven dead and many maimed." Foster was speaking about the building collapse that killed six, injured 14, and prompted the suicide of a L&I building inspector.
The editor said the responsibility for the building collapse rests at the top. "The cavalier attitude of the mayor and staff cannot be justified," Foster said. "No issue has brought more citizen outrage back to me as editor than this wall collapse and the deaths."
It was another bad day for Mayor Nutter, who previously had tried to mute the City Council's public hearings on the building collapse by barring current city officials from testifying.
The heaviest damage political damage to Nutter and his inept former L&I commissioner -- Fran Burns, now CEO of the city school district -- came from a trio of heavyweight plumbers who testified about the city's willful lack of oversight over their trade.
Two months after he took office in January 2008, Mayor Nutter dissolved the city's 50-year-old Plumbing Advisory Board, according to Walt Krzyzanowski, a master plumber who is president of Plumbing Contractors Local 690 of Philadelphia.
It didn't seem to matter that the plumbing board was mandated by the city charter.
L&I also got rid of all its plumbing inspectors, Krzyzanowski said, and transferred those duties to overworked building inspectors.
"The city, as explained to us by then Commissioners Burns and Deputy Commissioner [Michael] Fink, terminated the position of plumbing inspector and certified the building inspectors to inspect plumbing in efforts to cut costs to the city," Krzyzanowski said. "We ask at what cost to consumer protection and the protection of the health and safety of all Philadelphians and to the general public."
At one time, Krzyzanowski said, the city employed a dozen plumbing inspectors. But now the city allows plumbers to "self-certify," Krzyzanowski said, which basically amounted to allowing plumbers to inspect their own work.
The honor system ain't working, Krzyzanowski said. Last Friday, a "so-called plumber" working in the 2000 block of West Boston Street in North Philadelphia accidentally poked a hole in a gas line, said Michael McGraw, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors. Fifty homes had to be evacuated, McGraw said.
The building inspector who committed suicide was assigned to 700 open jobs. McGraw told council members he wondered how many of those jobs were plumbing inspections.
Historically, L&I's plumbing inspectors had to be master plumbers, Krzyzanowski said. "The current building inspectors do not possess this credential." The plumbing industry offered to bear the cost of having each building inspector take the master plumbers examination, Krzyzanowski said. "Commissioner Burns and Deputy Commissioner Fink declined these offers."
L&I under Commissioner Burns was indifferent to shoddy plumbing work, Krzyzanowski said.
In July 2009, city plumbers notified L&I Commissioner Burns and Deputy Commissioner Fink that substandard plumbing was being installed at a work site on Southampton Road in Philadelphia, in violation of the city's plumbing code, Krzyzanowski said. But Fink and Burns refused to do anything about it.
The plumbers concluded "that special procedures were being permitted for a political friend to the administration," Krzyzanowski said. The plumbers filed a lawsuit against the city in October 2009 in an effort to get the Nutter administration to enforce the city's plumbing code.
Another substandard job that the plumbers notified the city about was at Planet Fitness at Aramingo Avenue and York Street. On Dec. 1, 2010, Krzyzanowski said he notified L&I Commissioner Burns that roof drains at Planet Fitness were leaking through the side of the building on to a pedestrian walkway and a parking lot. The plumbers were worried about the winter hazards of a walkway and a parking lot turning into a couple of skating rinks.
"Much to the amazement of the plumbing industry, this facility was allowed by the city to open and operate without the condition being rectified," Krzyzanowski said. "To this day," Krzyzanowski said, one storm outlet at Planet Fitness "continues to spill directly onto a pedestrian walkway. After two and a half years, the industry is still attempting to get the administration to enforce the code."
City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said the hearings have been a revelation.
"Knowing how we operate, I don't feel too safe," he said.
The solution, the council members said, was to reverse the city's disastrous switch in emphasis at L&I from economic development back to life safety. If that means appropriating more money to hire more building inspectors, that's what we'll do, council members said.
Councilman Jim Kenney seemed disgusted. Every day, he said, his office receives complaints about "insane, illegal and dangerous conditions that exist" at construction sites around the city. He talked about the Nutter administration's reaction to the complaints: "arrogance beyond anything I've ever seen."
Plumber Krzyzanowski testified about how stunned he and his fellow plumbers were when the city turned down their offer to pay for plumbing training for building inspectors. "We couldn't figure out why they wouldn't take us up on the offer," Krzyzanowski said.
"Join the club," Kenney said.
Kenney said the city should consider hiring retired plumbers as plumbing inspectors at L&I. "They know what they're looking for," he said. Anything would be preferable to what's going on now, the councilman said.
"It's almost an underground, wild-west crazy situation out there," Kenney said. He said plumbing permits generated $18 million annually, so he did not understand why a plumbing permit unit at L&I wouldn't be "self-sustaining."
Council members agreed it was time to get back to having public safety be the top priority at L&I, instead of cost-cutting or economic development. To make matters worse, while Mayor Nutter and his hand-picked boob of a commissioner, Fran Burns, were dismantling L&I, the "reform mayor" was creating "31 new boards and commissions in his five years in office," Kryzanowski said.
Things like the mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics; the Advisory Commission on Construction Industry Diversity; and the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.
Hey Mix Master Mike, how about creating a new agency to make sure that buildings don't fall down on our citizens and kill them? We could call it the mayor's Office of New Life Safety and Creative Death Prevention. Or a new agency that will regulate rogue plumbers and electricians. From the testimony at today's public hearing, it sounds like it's needed.
Rachel Shapiro, a lawyer from South Philadelphia, told council members about her horrific five-year ordeal after she hired a contractor to renovate her house in 2008 for $30,000.
Shapiro said the contractor, Brad Koenig, president of Koenig Contracting, took it upon himself to do the electrical work, rather than hire a qualified electrician, even though Koenig didn't have a license to do electrical work in the city. Then Koenig quit the job halfway through, Shapiro told council members.
"My house was a mess, she said. "There were wires sticking out everywhere." When she sought help from the city, an L&I official told her, "It's buyer beware in this city, lady. What do you want me to do about it?"
In the lawsuit, Shapiro sought $30,000 in damages. She won in arbitration. On appeal, however, a judge ruled against her, saying the contractor hadn't been paid for all the work he did. It didn't matter that the job was unfinished, and the work was done without permits by an unlicensed contractor, Shapiro said. On a counter claim, the judge awarded the contractor another $7,199 of Shapiro's money.
Justice in Philadelphia. Then the contractor filed suit against Shapiro for wrongful use of civil proceedings. In the suit, which is pending, the contractor is seeking $50,000 for "emotional distress."
In February 2011, a fire broke out at Shapiro's house, and none of her fire alarms went off.
"If my house burns down tomorrow, would there be an investigation?" she asked. The contractor that victimized her has done lots of work at other homes throughout the city, Shapiro said. She told multiple city officials about it and they did nothing.
Her case was already lost, she told City Council members. But what about future victims who don't know they're hiring this unlicensed contractor who does substandard work. "Shouldn't this contractor be stopped?" Shapiro asked.
All she's gotten from the city in five years, Shapiro said, was the run around. Time and time again, she brought her complaints to city boards and agencies, as well as the courts, and they either blew her off, or ruled against her.
"I've waited five years for this moment," she told city council members.
"That's scary," Councilman Jones replied. "We have an honor system that isn't being honored. It's just incredible to me."