Testimony before Philadelphia City Council 8/16/13
Doing the Citizens’ Business
My name is Jim Foster, Editor of the Northwest Independent and lifetime city resident. Council staff told me recently that today’s hearing is the last regarding demolition and public safety and I find that irresponsible.
How can we possibly divorce the wall collapse issues from these hearings held by this Public Safety Committee; as they have provided so much eye-opening evidence that there has been culpable negligence by the city at many levels and over extended periods?
High level officials close to the mayor summarizing the streamlining of L & I use quotes like “We got more oversight with less supervision”, and tell us that there was no longer a standard for demolition practices uniformly applied, but Commissioner Levin spelled out how there had been and how essential it was.
We listen to extensive testimony verifying that there are people who know how to tear down structures safely. Well, “Who don’t’ know that”, but the most resonant statement made that day was from Mr. Macklin of the Minority Contractors Association who said: “It’s not that we don’t know how to tear down a building properly, but do those in charge of the process care if it is done that way?” A review of how much L & I was changed from a public safety division to an arm of the Commerce Department can be found in the 2011 report the city prepared, but was paid for by the William Penn Foundation.
We learn that recently transferred L & I Commissioner from 2008-2012, Fran Burns had to be subpoenaed to attend and she offered little reassurance that she had full understanding of the demolition process or that life-safety standards were the priority under her watch. However, the testimony of former Commissioner Bennett Levin set the room on fire.
“Speaking for the dead people” Mr. Levin recounted his personal experience with a system rife with insider dealing and the sidestepping of due process in Code Enforcement over the years, but telling the Committee in essence that most of the reforms he put in place from 1992-1995 were undone and it was “business as usual with politics and patronage trumping consistency and experience” in not only oversight of work done, but a previously existent pattern of pro-active public safety measures done in anticipation of problems that had been disregarded completely. His summary quote on the deaths says it all: “The fact that people died in a building collapse under current city policies was as sure to happen as the fact we get a full moon every 28 days.”
The Inquirer turns up some very telling email exchanges with the attorneys for both the collapsed building and the one the wall fell into. Further, their concerns for safety are copied to the one man who could have shut it down instantly until resolved. Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, of City Planning, also head of Commerce and therefore with authority over L & I, left the problem in the hands of the attorneys to work out. How does someone at that level walk away from what he had to know could go very wrong? We have yet to hear from those attorneys, the developer, the contractor and those related to the actual project while one worker is held as the only one negligent.
Sometimes I get aggravated when readers don’t seem to respond to some of the explosive articles we print, but let me assure you that no issue has brought more citizen outrage back to me as editor than this wall collapse and the deaths.
Frankly, and speaking for the citizens of this city and those who read our print and online articles under the heading of Germantown Newspapers, this should not be the end, but only the beginning of the process that tells the truth about how a city unraveled its Codes, played politics with due diligence, let down the citizenry, and now we have seven dead and many maimed. The cavalier attitude of the mayor and staff cannot be justified.
Yes, there is an ongoing secret Grand Jury investigating the issue, but DA Seth Williams is on the record that he sees no reason why City Council cannot bring as much information to the public doing its parallel work as possible.
Packing all this up during the August vacation season is an old trick when you want to minimize attendance and interest, and walk away from an unpleasant subject. This body must schedule hearings indefinitely after Labor Day and take what it learns from those we have not yet heard from and recommend legal remedies.
6661 Germantown Avenue
Philadelphia Pa 19119