Last Saturday, city controller Alan Butkovitz continued something of a public siege against the beleaguered Department of Licenses and Inspections when he called 911 to complain about a hazardous building on 24th and Thompson Streets. The next day, L&I demolished the building, and by Tuesday, the incident had been reported in the Inquirer.
“The neighbors said they had been calling for weeks about this problem,” he told the paper. Maybe they had, and maybe they hadn’t. Maybe the vacant rowhome was in such a derelict condition that it would have continued a long spate of building collapses. And maybe it wasn’t.
What’s certain is that, correctly or not, L&I came out of the incident looking indolent and unresponsive, an image it has been trying to fight since the 2140 Market Street disaster on June 5. To the extent a battle exists between the controller and L&I, the controller is winning—but only partially because of his own sharp tactics.
L&I has in the past few months developed a reputation as a stone wall. The 911 call came just days after L&I’s brinkmanship regarding a mountain of data surrounding demolition permits—data that Butkovitz had requested in late July. After failing to deliver the data, Butkovitz threatened to withhold department paychecks. L&I responded with a two-page document referencing a 3,000-page report of demolition information portions of the city code, which the deputy controller Harvey Rice says the controller deemed insufficient. Butkovitz subpoenaed L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams for more data, but four days before the scheduled subpoena hearing, Rice says Williams fulfilled the entirety of the original request.
“It was never offered in any email that, 'We’ll give you access, we’ll help you navigate through [the data] or obtain or understand [it], we’ll try to work with you or try to maneuver in the system,'” says Rice. “Why it took a subpoena—you have to ask them.”
“It didn’t take a threat of a subpoena to get the data,” says mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald. “If Butkovitz has an issue, he merely has to walk downstairs and talk to Carlton Williams, who’s readily available. This little political drama that he and Rice have created is unfortunate.”
The notion that Bukovitz—in the camp of IBEW 98 leader John “Doc” Dougherty—is politicizing a protracted moment of weakness in a department under the auspices of Nutter—Doc’s sworn nemesis—is both unsurprising and beside the point. No sooner than he won reelection did speculation about a 2015 mayoral run begin. Butkovitz has been accused of acting politically in his role as city auditor since he took the job in 2006; an Inquirer article early in his tenure summarized criticism of him as “forsaking the number-crunching core of his job for politicized issues that generate headlines.”
But Butkovitz isn’t inventing issues so much as exploiting ones that already exist. Both City Council and the Inquirer have encountered barriers to data regarding the names of inspectors and demolition contractors.
“[The city] suggested because of the grand jury investigation into the building collapse that they were prohibited from providing any of the documents that we sought that had any conceivable relevance to that building collapse,” says Inquirer reporter Bob Warner, who submitted a request for the information. He says that although the request was eventually filled, it took the blessing of the District Attorney’s office for the Law Department to actually send this data. “It’s kind of a ridiculous position to take, but that’s the position they took until the DA’s office sent them this letter.”
L&I is actually in an advantageous position to not stonewall, and framed rightly, it could turn collective public ire into sympathy for a hamstrung agency.
Today, the agency receives roughly half of the money budgeted to it in 2000 in real dollars, and far less than when it received a boon of funding during the height of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative in 2002. Because of sovereign immunity, it is not named as a defendant in any of the lawsuits stemming from the building collapse. Ideally, this would be the time to unleash any and all relevant data, sit the commissioner down for a series of Meet the Press-style interviews, and properly frame the issue of building collapses into one of blight.
Accusations that L&I is harried by insufficient funds and inspectors should be leveraged by L&I itself. Instead, they are resisted with defenses that the agency is the best of all possible agencies, making the situation all the more easily capitalized upon by politicos.
For Butkovitz, the fruit has hung low, and the basket is large.