Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Accountability alphabet: NYC DoB EPA WTC. . . wtf?

That little cheer you heard on Tuesday afternoon, rising above the noxious symphony of a thousand backhoes and jackhammers that serves as the soundtrack for lower Manhattan these days, well, that was me, celebrating the news that the embattled head of New York City’s Department of Buildings, Pat “Splat” Lancaster, had finally stepped up and stepped down.

Lancaster, who has served as Commissioner for the entire reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was originally tasked with modernizing the DoB. . . which, under Bloody Mike, meant making it run more smoothly so that developers (don’t call them greedy, just call them Mike’s “base”) could demolish old New York, build their banal office towers, super-luxury high-rises, and boondoggle developments, and cash out before term limits forced a change at City Hall.

And to that end, I’d have to say Lancaster’s tenure has been an, er, um, smashing success.

Bloomberg continued to make it clear that in his idea of New York, you have to break some eggs to make Mike’s “revitalized” breakfast (construction work is “complicated,” he said on Tuesday), but, much to his chagrin, Lancaster used these “raw materials” to make a garbage omelet.

Ms. Lancaster not only presided over increases in construction-related deaths and injuries for most of this decade, several high-profile disasters like last year’s Deutsche Bank fire and last month’s crane collapse revealed an agency that consistently failed to perform some of its most basic tasks. Safety inspections were not done, complaints of unsafe conditions were not taken seriously, building violations were allowed to mount with little consequence, and zoning restrictions were ignored. This year’s thirteen construction deaths have already surpassed 2007’s dirty dozen, but Lancaster’s position remained safe until she made an absolute idiot of herself at a public hearing of the City Council last Thursday. (She not only fessed up—sort of—to ignoring zoning restrictions on the building that spawned the crane collapse, she was unable to identify any other dangerous sites that she and her agency had previously been asked to find and fix.)

Well, doing bad is one thing, but, to media mogul Mike, looking bad is another—so, on Monday, the mayor distanced himself from Lancaster, and, on Tuesday, he “accepted her resignation” (at least he thinks that’s how it went down—he really didn’t sound too sure).

It remains to be seen what Lancaster has to say for herself now that she has been set adrift from the Good Ship Gracie Mansion, but if she were feeling the strain of tiny budgets and untoward influences while she held a position of power, then she owed it to the citizens of New York to stand up and say something. Her relative silence in the face of years of construction disasters was all I needed to, uh, hear to know that Splat wasn’t doing her job. . .

. . . though paragraphs like the following also make that pretty damn clear:

Her defenders, including a number of developers, said that Ms. Lancaster, 54, had been unfairly blamed for the failings of an antiquated and underfinanced department with a long history of corruption, inefficiency and missing records.

“She did a terrific job in getting the department back on track,” the developer Douglas Durst said.

. . . .

She built a considerable following in the industry she helped regulate.

“I think the world of Patricia Lancaster,” said Richard T. Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, a trade group. “I think she accomplished an enormous amount.”

Calling her “a shining star,” he added, “If you look at her six-year record, it’s overwhelmingly positive.”

It is very worth noting that the only quotes singing Lancaster’s praises came from the industry that she was supposed to regulate—the Times had none to offer from the people that she was supposed to protect.

It kind of gives new substance to six years of accusations that Lancaster was too cozy with developers and contractors.

Lie down with dogs, and you get a dog’s dinner.

And while we’re on the subject of lying, let’s take a moment to address yesterday’s ruling in the case of former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman.

In February of 2006, I wrote with more than a little personal interest about the ruling by Manhattan Federal Judge Deborah Batts that residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the World Trade Center could sue Whitman for lying about air quality in the aftermath of the Twin Towers’ collapse.

“Whitman's deliberate and misleading statements to the press, where she reassured the public that the air was safe to breathe around lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, and that there would be no health risk presented to those returning to those areas, shocks the conscience,” Judge Batts wrote.

“By these actions,” Batts added, Mrs. Whitman “increased, and may have in fact created, the danger” to people living and working near the trade center.

About 50,000 personal computers, 424,000 tons of concrete, 2,000 tons of asbestos, and untold tons of other toxic junk were turned to dust when the towers fell. I was walking around in a stupid surgical mask for days afterwards—I’d gag and cough when I took it off. That’s not a scientific assessment, but, apparently, neither was Christie’s.

Now, more than two years and several WTC Syndrome fatalities later, a federal appeals court has overturned Judge Batts.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals said that Mrs. Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey, was forced to balance competing interests after the attack. The court found that complying with instructions from the White House to hasten the return of financial workers to Wall Street as soon as possible after the World Trade Center was destroyed conflicted with Mrs. Whitman’s obligation to highlight the health risks facing people who lived, worked or went to school in Lower Manhattan.

“Whether or not Whitman’s resolution of such competing considerations was wise,” the court said, “she has not engaged in conduct that ‘shocks the conscience’ in the sense necessary to create constitutional liability for damages to thousands of people.”

The competing interests of. . . wait, let me get this straight. . . the interest of lying to cover for the president’s lies is competing with the interest of protecting the health and well-being of the citizenry. I am almost speechless (almost). If Christie Whitman’s conduct doesn’t shock the conscience, the idea that there was a balance to be struck between these “interests” most certainly does.

Well, if the head of the government agency tasked with testing the air quality isn’t accountable for her lies because she had to consider the interests of the White House, then surely someone higher up in the Bush Administration must be accountable, right?


Where does the buck stop around here—in the country, in New York City—where? Is any public servant ever going to be held responsible for what they do (as opposed to being held responsible for whom they do. . . well, at least if that official is a Democrat) while entrusted with the care of the people that pay their salaries?

Be it buildings falling down or building going up, it seems increasingly clear that the answer is “no.” If you are not rich, powerful, of a friend thereof, if you need the protection of the NYC DoB or the US EPA, well then, I’m afraid that you are SOL.

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

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