Former L&I Commissioner Fran Burns Testifies About Demolition Practices

The School District has a new chief operating officer: Fran Burns, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA), the state board that oversees the city of Philadelphia’s finances.
In late May Fran Burns was hired by the Philadelphia School District as its new chief operating officer, taking her away from her role as executive director of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA).

But before she was at PICA, she was the commissioner of the city’s troubled Licenses & Inspections agency for four years. She was widely credited with reassessing many of the agency’s most entrenched incompetent practices, though she did tell NewsWorks that L&I’s past made correcting the present tough to do. Even so, she was certainly the most active, engaged, passionate commissioners that agency has ever had.

Today at City Council’s hearings “aggressive agenda,” as Councilman Jones put it, on demolition best practices, which come in the wake of the building collapse at 22nd and Market, Burns testified about the way practices evolved on her watch. Below, notes taken by Camilla Brandfield-Harvey. Unless a sentence is in quote marks, it is most likely a paraphrase.

Jones asks if all demolition contractors are created equal by way of proficiency. Burns explains that at one point before her time, the city did not require any license and the department gradually recognized the need.

What qualities would Burns recommend for licensing a contractor going forward:
1) look at other cities with more stringent regulations
2) look at prior experience

Did she require safety plans from contractors?
Safety plans were required to present to OSHA, but not to the City of Philadelphia (this applies to private and public works)

From Councilman Kenney: Should there be separate departments for the issuance and for the construction so that there are more people specifically qualified for those areas, particularly the construction and demolition?
Burns: That is a viable idea and there are models across the country that demonstrate this

Kenney: Are inspectors in L&I more generalists than specialists?
Burns: Inspectors are required to have four years of trade experience, though some college and some trade can be a compromise
There are technically specialists coming in the door–if four years of plumbing training is required

Case study presented by Kenney: complaints about an unlicensed auto repair shop at 2nd and Wharton began in 2011 and fire occurred in Dec 2012. This place was unlicensed with four inspections reported and two court hearings. So what is the standard for letting places operate and for shutting them down when they’re reporting unlicensed? Why not this one?
Burns: There’s policy that gets into zoning, nothing very decisive

Kenney: It’s critically important that firefighters from the fire department be included at inspections. They would have shut it down themselves.
Jones: We don’t want things economically driven; public safety comes first

Councilman Henon: There are prequalifications for L&I?
Burns: There’s an experience requirement to get license
Henon: But not for demolition and contractor?
Burns: Not to my knowledge but there is a different requirement to be hired to perform demolition in behalf of city

Owner responsibility: Henon asks who has responsiblity: owners or contractors?
Burns: Going forward you need to make it clear if you’re going to make regulations for general contractors. Owners need to be informed to hire contractors that are licensed.
There’s ownership on both sides.

Council member Cindy Bass: What was your reaction to the 22nd & Market collapse?
Burns: My reaction doesn’t matter in context
Bass: It does. L&I doesn’t have a great reputation and we can’t progress unless we look back
Burns: I won’t comment on my thoughts, of which I have many but won’t share