|A Star Is Born|
The City Council should have hired Johnny Doc to turn its special report on demolition practices into another "Johnny Doc-umentary."
After holding five public hearings on the fatal Market Street building collapse, the City Council on Sept. 26th released a 69-page report on how to reform the city's demolition practices to prevent future tragedies.
If you didn't read it, I'll save you the trouble. It's a real snore that only bureaucrats and government wonks would appreciate; dense and filled with jargon. Worse, the report fails to hold accountable Mayor Nutter and the Department of Licenses and Inspections for their lax approach to public safety that was amply exposed during the public hearings.
Fortunately, the Philadelphia Building Trades Union has released a 19-minute documentary, "Deconstructing Post Brothers: Exposing the Truth Behind the Cheap Facade." The film, which stars "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, had its world premiere Oct. 1 at the electricians headquarters on Spring Garden Street.
The union film targets the Post Brothers non-union construction job at the Goldtex Apartments on 12th Street with predictable venom. But along the way, it's everything the City Council report isn't -- fast-paced, easy to understand, and hard-hitting. Best of all, it features a cast of characters blasting our incompetent mayor and the drones at L&I for failing to protect us.
The report of the City Council's "Special Investigating Committee on Demolition Practices" was ordered after the June 5th building collapse on Market Street that killed 6 and injured 13. The report began by recalling the fatal building collapse, as well as three subsequent building collapses during the next three months that fortunately didn't kill anybody.
All the collapses, however, happened after contractors were permitted and inspected by the Inspector Clouseaus over at L&I.
Here, the City Council report really goes out on a limb by stating, "The unavoidable conclusion was that the city's permitting and inspection process fell short of what was necessary to protect the public."
The report shows the city does know how to supervise demolition work.
Under former Mayor Street, the city beginning in 2001 oversaw demolitions of 5,000 abandoned and derelict structures under the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative [NTI]. The demolition work was done by 66 contractors previously approved by the city after they had to submit proof of insurance, as well as pass a criminal background check, and show they were paid up on taxes.
"Despite the inherently dangerous work of demolition, no significant physical injuires to workers or civilians were reported during NTI's period of extensive citywide demolition," the report said.
NTI, sadly, was confined to demolition jobs on public property. "The requirements for private demolitions are vague and the provisions are located in multiple sections of the code," the report said.
During the recent public hearings on the fatal building collapse, L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams explained, "We are the actual job holder" on public demolition jobs. "The contractor is the job holder of a private demolition site."
It's a distinction the relatives of people killed and injured on Market Street probably wouldn't appreciate.
"The rules applicable to the demolition of public-owned property and the information required on demolition contractors are much more stringent than the nebulous rules applicable to private property demolition," the report said. "For example, both the former NTI program and the Master Demolition Plan require contractors to submit a criminal background check and to provide evidence of their competency and experience performing demolition."
"This is not required of private property demolition contractors who merely complete a building permit application which requests information pertaining to the erection of buildings and requires little, if any information related to demolition," the report said. "The permit requests no information whatsoever about the contractor's level of competency or experience in performing demolition ..."
To remedy the situation, the City Council committee proposes creating a separate demolition permit. The City Council wants to require contractors to show they're paid up on taxes. The Council also wants to require an engineering survey for the demolition of any structure greater than three stories.
"I'm a firm believer if somebody is not paying their taxes, they don't get their license," Councilman Bobby Henon said during the hearings. "If somebody is cheating on their taxes, I guarantee you they're cheating on other things."
The only public criticism of L&I during the 69-page report is uttered by former L&I Commissioner Bennett Levin.
"The current organization of the department is dysfunctional," Levin said during the public hearings. "It is not based upon the department's basic core fuctions as defined by the City Charter. L&I is not an ecnomic development entity. L&I is not a revenue entity. Its first and primary responsibillity is dealing with the safety of the general public."
The City Charter specifies that L&Is's primary duty is public safety, and that the department should report to the city's managing director. Under Mayor Nutter, however, and Fran Burns, Nutter's hand-picked L&I Commissioner during his first term, the focus at L&I shifted from public safety to economic development. Nutter also issued an executive order that required L&I to report to the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, who is also director of commerce.
That might have been a mistake, former L&I Commissioner Fran Burns conceded during the public hearings. "I do think it reinforces the mission of L&I to have it in a structure of public safety," Burns testified after she was hit with a subpoena. "Sometimes that gets lost if it's not there."
The City Council report proposes splitting L&I. The committee recommends that all functions at L&I relating to revenue should report to the finance department. And all functions relating to public safety should report to the department of public safety.
Wake me up when it's over.
In the building trades movie, Pat Gillespie is the leadoff hitter. Gillespie, the business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, said of the Post Brothers, "They've come to Philadelphia with New York money to exploit the advantages that have been created in our marketplace here."
The film features a couple of construction workers in shadows who say of the Post Brothers job site, "There's no safety standards, there's no quality standards."
The film accuses the Post Brothers of using a trash chute at Goldtex as a temporary diesel fuel line. The film shows trash piles at building entrances and exits, as well as mold on walls, and bottles and buckets of workers' urine stashed everywhere. Some urine bottles are shown partially sealed in walls.
The job site has no fire extinguishers or fire alarms, the film charges. It also has elevators that have failed inspections. A crane is shown with safety mechanisms removed so that it could hoist cargo above recommended levels. "A major accident waiting to happen, one of the workers said.
Meanwhile, L&I's oversight of public safety is faulted.
"It's chaos and you can't have safety when there's chaos," former L&I Commissioner Bennett Levin said.
"This is the wild west," Gillespie said. "This is nuts; serious things can happen."
"Twenty-Second and Market is a building owner doing it on the cheap,"chimes in City Councilman Jim Kenney. "I want to maximize my profits. I want to make as much money as I can and I don't care whether I put those people shopping at the Salvation Army in jeopardy," Kenney said of the building owner. "Or the people walking along Market Street going to and from work every day in jeopardy, I'm gonna get the cheapest price and the cheapest labor I can get."
"It all comes back to the city and the department they set up to have oversight," a worker in shadows said. "Where's the oversight? Where's the inspections?
"It's all about revenue; when it comes to L&I, its all about money," said Jim Dollard, who's identified on camera as a national safety expert.
The film then shifts its target to Mayor Nutter.
"There's particular things that L&I can do but because of policy decisions made by the mayor, they say, well, this is our policy," said Councilman Mark Squilla, while the film shows Mayor Nutter at his desk. "We want people to build; we want businesses to stay open," Kenney said of the attitude at L&I. "We don't want to close them down. Let's just collect the fees. That's why L&I became so lax."
At L&I, political pressures have trumped public safety concerns. "There really is no longer an effective inspection process," Bennett Levin said.
"When you take a look at L&I, you know, it basically became permits are us," said Johnny Doc.
While L&I is lax on public safety, developers know "how to game the system," Councilman Squilla said.
Pat Gillespie is upset about the expedited permits L&I has granted Post Brothers. "Something's not right down there," he said.
"They [the Post Brothers] think they're above the law or they have some sort of an arrangement with Mayor Nutter's administration," said Johnny Doc.
"I don't understand, frankly, why this particular development, these particular developers have been given passes by the Nutter administration," said Councilman Jim Kenney. "Because they certainly have been given passes."
Despite L&I citing the Post Brothers for 26 violations on 10 occasions, on July 12, L&I issued Goldtex a temporary certificate of occupancy.
"They have proved to the world that you can come to Philadelphia, you can not pull permits, you can not use licensed contractors, you can do whatever you want," said safety expert Dollard. "You can create serious safety hazards and the present administration basically endorses this kind of activity."
The Post Brothers have responded to the film by labeling it a "Johnny Doc-umentary" and saying it should have been called Labor Gone Wild. The Post Brothers described the unions' charges as "false and reckless."
So far, the Nutter administration has not reviewed the film. I'd give it four stars.