Friday, March 21, 2008

Heckuva job, Patty

News broke late Thursday that a city buildings inspector had been arrested and charged with lying to New York City authorities about an inspection he was supposed to have performed earlier this month on the crane that collapsed in Turtle Bay on Saturday, killing seven and injuring dozens more. Concerns about the stability of the crane were called in to the city’s 311 complaint line on March 3rd. The inspector, Edward J. Marquette, never visited the construction site, but filed falsified reports claiming that he had.

The head of the NYC Department of Buildings, Patricia J. Lancaster, who, amazingly, still has her job, suspended Mr. Marquette, and sought to have the last six months of his inspection reports reexamined. But, it should be noted, that discovery and investigation of the inspector’s alleged criminal activity was conducted by the City’s Department of Investigations, and not Lancaster’s DoB.

And what about the matter that has shown such a bright light on the 51st Street site? Not an issue here, says Patty:

With regard to the crane accident itself, it is highly unlikely that a March 4 inspection would have prevented the horrific accident that happened on March 15, which we are still looking at the probable cause being mechanical failure or human failure during the ‘jumping’ operations when the crane was raised.

The New York Times City Room reports that Lancaster said the lack of an inspection of the complaint about the stability of the crane, “Was probably not even ‘remotely associated’ with the collapse.”

Oh, well, then, it’s not your problem, is it? Heckuva job, Patty.

While the parts of the crane that are now believed to be the root cause of the collapse (and I will note that is only “believed” to be the cause—the investigation is not complete by a long stretch—and several local news channels have reported that there were numerous serious problems with the way this crane had been set up, beyond the failing straps and collar that may have started the fatal chain reaction on Saturday) might not have been the parts that a March 4th inspection would have targeted, Lancaster misses the bigger—and I would say, quite obvious—point.

If an inspector could so easily mislead the DoB about a routine investigation of a civilian complaint, how can Lancaster be sure that her department is doing the inspections that would be “associated”—remotely or otherwise—with such dangerous situations? In fact, how do we as city residents know that our calls to 311 are even investigated at all?

This inspector’s alleged fraud is a symptom of a bigger problem.

During the 1990s, the city gave up on the function of building inspection, without issuing an official declaration of surrender. Year after year, graft scandals would wipe out dozens of inspectors at a time. By the end of 2001, the number of inspectors had dwindled to 277 from about 800 in the early 1990s. Developers were left to operate on what amounted to an honor system. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the department had become “severely understaffed and deeply demoralized” by the time he took office in January 2002 — at the very moment that the city was beginning a surge in new building.

. . . .

In December, a nylon sling on a crane snapped, and seven tons of steel fell onto Murray Street in Lower Manhattan from the 25th floor of a construction site, severely injuring an architect, Robert Woo. A few weeks later, in January, Yuriy Vanchytskyy, a construction worker, fell 42 stories from a hotel on Spring Street being built by Donald Trump.

Awful as these accidents were, they hardly begin to describe the human price of growth in New York. The city’s construction business, particularly outside of Manhattan, is becoming the modern version of the 19th-century coal mine.

Between early 2006 and the middle of 2007, 44 people died on construction sites, 40 of them in nonunion jobs involving immigrants, said Louis Coletti, the president of an association of builders. Most of those deaths took place in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, records show. Miczyslaw Piatek, 52, was digging a foundation in Brooklyn when the cinder-block wall next door collapsed on him. The wall had not been shored up, a federal investigation found.

The number of inspectors has increased somewhat under Mayor Bloomberg (there are now 426. . . make that 425), but that growth does not begin to meet the needs of an industry that expects another $45 billion of construction this decade.

While the alleged behavior of Mr. Marquette is inexcusable, the inspector, who it is reported made an annual salary of $48,000, and, more importantly, his colleagues are no doubt over-extended. Perhaps it is shocking that an inspector just skipped doing his job and falsified records, but if Marquette had visited the site and done a hurried or insufficient inspection, would he have even been caught? Indeed, would he have even been guilty of a specific crime?

Jim Dwyer, who wrote the column that I quote above, reports that “colleagues say“ Lancaster is “capable and dedicated,” and that the DoB is just outgunned by the wealthy real estate and construction industries. That may be so, but some of the 45 billion bucks have to stop somewhere.

Patricia Lancaster has had six years to repair the damage to her department. If Mayor Michael Bloomberg has not given her the resources to do that job properly, then it is well past the time that she should have protested—publicly and loudly.

A system in which a building inspector can skip inspections and still cross them off his list is a system that is, like that Harlem building, past repair. It is broken. As Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said in a statement:

What more evidence do we need? It is clear we cannot trust the Buildings Department to keep construction sites safe. We need now a complete top-to-bottom independent review of this department, its procedures and its personnel.

And we need much bigger fines for violations and criminal penalties for serial violators. We also need a system that stops work more quickly on buildings with multiple violations—even if no single violation is considered serious enough in itself to merit a stoppage.

Because a series of small violations should be seen as I see the inspections scandal, as a symptom that something bigger is amiss. It could be viewed as the regulatory equivalent of “broken windows” policing.

But ultimately, we need someone to take responsibility for what is happening. The rampant development that has outstripped our ability to regulate it has been encouraged at the highest levels of city and state government. If the elected officials who depend so heavily on donations from real estate developers lack the political will to protect the citizens of New York, then it is up to the appointed bureaucrats—the supposed experts—to live up to their sworn duties. It might take perseverance and courage, but the office and the people—your friends, neighbors, and family—deserve no less.

Patricia J. Lancaster, it’s time to step up, or step down.

(h/t Gowanus Lounge and Lost City)

(cross-posted on guy2k, Daily Kos, and The Seminal)

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home