A former commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) says the bureaucratic factors in the Market Street building collapse in May can be traced back to problems in L&I that he says resulted in the fire at One Meridian Plaza in 1991, the deaths of two firefighters in an abandoned industrial building in Kensington last year, and other accidents over the last few decades. “We accept sloth and unaccountability from the department,” says Bennett Levin, L&I Commissioner from 1992 to 1995.
Levin, along with a more recent former commissioner, testified at City Council’s fourth Special Investigative Committee hearing which has been tasked with determining how city government can help prevent future accidents. Fran Burns, L&I Commissioner from 2008 to 2012, answered questions about a perceived shift in L&I’s priorities from public safety to revenue, while Levin provided context for the corruption and ineffectiveness he has seen at L&I for the last 20 years.
“Frankly the answers [to questions about the cause of May’s collapse] are not that difficult or remote,” said Levin in his opening remarks. “The answers lie in how the department is organized and how inspectors are managed,” he said.
Burns asserted that L&I’s priority has always been public safety and that department heads are not motivated by revenue, which does not come back to the department anyway. Answering questions from Councilman Bobby Henon, Burns provided details about current L&I policies that could be changed to increase public safety and simplify permitting processes – such as requiring property owners to hire only licensed contractors and creating pre-qualification requirements for general contractors seeking licensure. Currently, L&I requires specialty contractors like electricians and plumbers to have a certain number of years of experience before they can be fully licensed. No such requirements exist for general contractors or demolition contractors.
Councilwoman Cindy Bass asked Burns if May’s collapse surprised her given the department’s history. “You’re asking about something I don’t feel comfortable speculating on,” Burns responded.
Levin was not so circumspect in his testimony. He’s been calling the department, and city government in general, slothful and corrupt since before then-Mayor Ed Rendell appointed him commissioner in 1992. Levin resigned in 1995 after clashing with Rendell over allegations of corruption against Levin's aides at L&I. "When you drain the swamp, you're bound to upset the alligators," he often said, according to the Daily News.
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