Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Bennett Levin Says Mayor Nutter Violates City Charter While De-Emphasizing Life Safety At L&I

Bennett Levin
By Ralph Cipriano
for Bigtrial.net

Former L&I Commissioner Bennett Levin charges that Mayor Nutter is in the process of "tearing down" his former department. Along the way, Levin says, Nutter has de-emphasized public safety, as well as violated the city charter.

"During your campaign for mayor, you often expressed your disdain for the department," Levin wrote in an open letter to the mayor today that was circulated to the media. "In my humble but experienced opinion, the problem is not solved by tearing down the department, by slashing its workforce by 25 percent, or by providing it with a commissioner who, from all appearances, knew absolutely nothing about its core and basic public safety responsibility ..."

The City Council has been holding public hearings on the June 5th building collapse on Market Street that killed six people, injured 14, and prompted an L&I inspector to commit suicide. At an Aug. 1 hearing, City Councilwoman Cindy Bass asked Fran Burns, former L&I commissioner under Nutter, why the focus at L&I had switched from life safety to economic development. Burns, L&I commissioner from 2008 to 2012, claimed it wasn't true in testimony that underwhelmed council members and spectators.

The mayor's press office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Levin's charges. Apparently, they only respond to the newspaper owned by the Democratic party.

Mayor Nutter (right)

Levin, L&I commissioner from 1992 to 1995, said that under the city charter, L&I is primarily responsible for building safety, not economic development. When the charter describes the duties of L&I, it doesn't say anything about economic development.

Under the charter, Levin says, L&I reports to the managing director. That's the way it worked when Levin was L&I commissioner under Mayor Ed Rendell.

But under Mayor Nutter, L&I reports to Alan Greenberger, who wears three hats, and is on the same level of the city's organizational chart as the managing director. Greenberger is executive director of the city planning commission, director of commerce, and deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

The city charter backs up Levin. Section 5-1002 states the functions of L&I. The first thing listed is "building safety and sanitation, signs and zoning." The charter says L&I shall "administer and enforce all statutes, ordiances and regulations for the protection of persons and property from hazards in the use, condition, erection, alteration, maintenance, repair, sanitation ... removal and demolition of buildings and structures ..."

Under the duties of the managing director, the charter spells out which departments report to the managing director, and L&I is listed as one of those departments.

"The fact that the department of licenses and inspections apparently reports to the commerce director who is also the deputy mayor for economic development, rather than the managing director, in direct contradiction of the city charter, is all one has to know as to where the priorities lie with respect to protection of the public's safety," Levin wrote.

Levin said when he was in office, L&I had 421 employees; now it has 308.

"L&I needs leadership that has the technical knowledge and core experience to direct its public safety responsibilities," Levin wrote. "It is not something solely gained from being a good tester or having obtained a masters in public administration."

Fran Burns is a former intramural director at Villanova University who holds a graduate degree in public administration. Before she was L&I commissioner, she worked for the city as an assistant managing director, and an assistant budget director.

Levin is a licensed engineer and a former chairman of the city's Board of Building Standards. He spoke in frustration about what's going on today at City Hall.

"They're violating the charter and nobody blows the whistle," Levin said in an interview. "Nobody says, what are we doing here? And then they bring in a Zumba teacher to run the department. That doesn't make you a commissioner."

"He [Nutter] stripped away the department," Levin said in an interview. "You can't bring back all of these skills that have been let loose. If you didn't learn from the Meridian fire, and you didn't learn from the pier collapse, and you didn't learn from the judge getting conked on the head, when are you going to learn?"

Levin was referring to a series of catastrophes that he has blamed on mismanagement at L&I, including the 1991 fire at One Meridian Plaza that killed three firefighters: a 1997 accident where falling debris from a building previously cited by L&I as having a weakened facade killed a judge; and the 2000 collapse of a Delaware River pier that killed three young women.

When Nutter was running for mayor, he promised to "blow up" L&I, an agency he criticized for being obtuse and not user-friendly. When Burns took office, she said she was going to retool the agency. In addition to its focus on protecting life safety, Burns said, L&I would be paying more attention to its role in economic development, and it's link with the city commerce department.

A longtime L&I employee who worked under L&I commissioners Burns and Levin said that "Burns was there to be a bureaucrat. She was all about cutting costs ... She wanted to show an increase in revenues and a cut in costs."

Mayor Nutter's focus was on streamlining the permit process,  said the longtime L&I employee who did not want to be identified. "I don't think he [Nutter] cared about the [safety] inspections," the employee said. "I don’t think Nutter understood the system and hired the managers who should have been there."

Under Burns, the longtime L&I employee said, private demolitions such as the one that occurred on Market Street were viewed as the primary responsibility of the owner.

That's not how it worked when he was commissioner, Levin said.

Levin used to convene a meeting in his office every morning. "The first thing we talked about was dangerous buildings in the city," he said. "I had one inspector on call around the clock." If somebody made a complaint, the inspector on duty "got paid to go out at 2 o'clock in the morning" and check out a potentially dangerous building, Levin said.

In the Market Street collapse, complaints were made a month before the tragedy. If complaints about the ongoing demolition job on Market Street had happened on his watch, Levin said, "Somebody would have gone out immediately." The procedure would have been for the inspector on call to visit the site, and if it was imminently dangerous, issue a stop work order.

 Regarding the L&I building inspector who committed suicide, the Market Street demolition was one of 700 jobs he had in his portfolio.

"It's not the fault of the guy who committed suicide," Levin said, "its the fault of the process."

In his open letter to Mayor Nutter, Levin asked, "who pays the price" for the incompetence of city government.

"As usual, it is the poorest among us who pay the price," Levin wrote. "The price is not only paid by those who were killed or injured, but the price for poor and ineffective governance in our city is paid by those who can least afford it."

"Mismanagement and ineffective leadership over the past years have burdened our citizens to the point where all Philadelphians, including the poor, are forced to pay a 33 percent surcharge on the state sales tax solely as the result of how the city has been managed," Levin wrote. "It is a self-inflicted burden and it is just one of the many burdens imposed as the result of poor political leadership."

"L&I needs to be fixed," Levin wrote Mayor Nutter. "It needs to overcome 15 years of decay. It needs your support, not your disdain."

The feud between Levin and Nutter was prompted by a statement released by a Nutter spokesman after Levin testified on Aug. 1 before City Council. The statement attributed to Nutter said that Levin was "out of touch," and charged that he had slandered current L&I employees, something that didn't happen.

"Rather than curse the darkness and slander the messenger, I would respectfully suggest you light a few candles and give the city a department that they can respect and have confidence in," Levin wrote Nutter.

Here's the full text of Levin's letter:



AN OPEN LETTER TO MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER




The Honorable Michael Nutter
Mayor
The City of Philadelphia
City Hall
Philadelphia, Pa 19107


Dear Mayor Nutter

Over a week ago I wrote you expressing my concern about the prepared statement that was released to the media in your name claiming that I “slandered” employees of the Department of Licenses and Inspections during my recent testimony before the Special Investigating Committee of City Council. I had hoped you would have read, not only my letter of August 4th that was addressed to you, but also my testimony and the transcript of my responses to questions raised by members of Council. I assume from the lack of a response by you that you have not done any of the above. Therefore; in an attempt to set the record straight I have attached a copy of my letter to you and offer the following comments concerning the current state of affairs in L&I.

At the onset, I once again, want to emphasize that my comments are in no way to be taken as a reflection on the recently appointed Commissioner.

When I look at the names of employees on the Department’s organization chart I take great pride in the fact that both deputy commissioners were employees who were what I considered rising stars while I was its Commissioner. I mentioned Mike Fink in my testimony, and Mike Maenner (who I did not mention) was one of two young building Inspectors from the South District who early on in my tenure had lunch with me and brought to my attention the need to have their job title reclassified as there was, at that time, no real opportunity for building inspectors to improve their skills and promote into positions of higher responsibility. It was a situation that was all too common in how the Department’s promotion ladder was structured. I also note that many of the current senior managers shown on the chart were young people, also of great promise, who have matured and assumed responsibility not only for themselves but for the general welfare of our city’s citizens. I consider Streets Commissioner David Perri, a former L&I Professional Engineer, a sterling example of the caliber of employee to be found at L&I.

As I said in my prepared remarks before City Council, “For the most part L&I employees were not bad people”. If I had a handful of bad actors out of a total of 421 employees, that would be saying a lot. I was proud of the people in the Department that worked with me and what they accomplished while I was their commissioner.

I contended in my testimony the problem is not with the employees but rather the manner in which they are organized into working units, the priorities that are set for them; and most important, how they are directed and managed.

I think that not only am I owed an apology for how you miscast my testimony, but so are all of those who work hard at L&I under what has been from time to time questionable leadership.

The thrust of my testimony was the fact that during Mayor Rendell’s second term he appointed a Commissioner who started the “demolition” of L&I. That Commissioner was reappointed by Mayor Street over the very strong objections of his (Mayor Street) own transition team. He was a commissioner who had an agenda that wasn’t focused on the Life Safety mandates of the Department as set forth in the City Charter. The best example of that contention is evidenced by what occurred at the VIDA apartments over the objections of the Fire Department. He was also, I believe, a commissioner who had apparently little or no regard for the rule of law as evidenced by Federal Judge Kelley in his “Maffucci” opinion.

The fact that the Department of Licenses and Inspections apparently reports to the Commerce Director who is also the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development rather than of the Managing Director, in direct contradiction of the City Charter, is all one has to know as to where the priorities lie with respect to the protection of the public’s safety. I am not saying or inferring that there is a deliberate scheme to subordinate public safety. However,; I am saying that by removing L&I from the direct control of the Managing Director and placing it under the control of the Commerce Director someone has created the appearance; and as a result, the conditions that dilute the Department’s core charter mandated function of Public Safety. Again my comments are not to be taken as a comment on the qualifications or the character of Alan Greenberger who has an excellent reputation and who I know from first hand experience is a dedicated public servant.

During your campaign for Mayor you often expressed your disdain for the Department. In my humble but experienced opinion, the problem is not solved by tearing down the Department, by slashing it’s workforce by 25%, or providing it with a Commissioner who from all appearances knew absolutely nothing about its core and basic public safety responsibility (as evidenced by her performance on August 1st) and did not appear to be an advocate for either her department or it’s employees. The problem surely is not solved by removing the Department to the realm of Economic Development.

While among my credentials as a candidate for the position of L&I Commissioner I did not have a Master Degree in Public Administration, I did have (like thousands of other people in this city) the equivalent of a PhD in having been an abused customer of the Department for over 25 years. L&I needs leadership that has the technical knowledge and core experience to direct its public safety responsibilities.’’ It is not something solely gained from being a good tester or having obtained a Masters in Public Administration. Most important the Department needs the political support from the Mayor, City Council, as well as the political infrastructure such as the Personnel Department, the Finance Department, the Commerce Department and the Law Department. I was lucky because for the most part, I had that support during most of my tenure as Commissioner.

My experience is, as I have stated earlier, that L&I workers and by extension city employees in general are not bad people. They are for the most part better compensated than their counterparts in the private sector, they have better benefits than those in the private sector and they have superior pension benefits than those outside of the government. What they do not have is he ability to use their God given talents and intellect to the maximum extent possible due to poor leadership, a myriad of rules and regulations that stifle innovation, and abjectly poor management. I made many friends within the city workforce. They were and are people who I respected and who I would have loved to have worked for and with me in the private sector. It is not about the workers. It is all about their leadership.

Who pays the price? As usual it is the poorest amongst us who pay the price. The price is not only paid by those who were killed or injured, but the price for poor and ineffective governance in our city is paid by those who can least afford it. Mismanagement and ineffective leadership over the past years have burdened our citizens to the point where all Philadelphians, including the poor, are forced to pay a 33% surcharge on the State Sales Tax solely as the result of how the city has been managed. It is a self-inflicted burden and It is just one of many burdens imposed as the result of poor political leadership. Many people have voted. They voted with their feet and have left the city. Businesses who don’t vote in elections also voted with their feet and have left the city taking their jobs and their U&O and City Wage Tax revenue with them.  

L&I needs to be fixed. It needs to overcome over 15 years of decay. It needs your support; not your disdain. Citizens need a safe environment and businesses need “reason”, not “confrontation”. We need to return to basics and forget the “frills”.

I urge you to reconsider how you have structured L&I. It is not too late to bring reform if there is the political will. You are the Mayor and the responsibility is yours.

Rather than curse the darkness and slander the messenger, I would respectfully suggest you light a few candles and give the city a Department that they can respect and have confidence in.

With all due respect,



Bennett Levin  PE


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