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Hammered by Auditors 

L.A. building department riddled by lax inspections and broken rules

Wednesday, Jun 28 2006
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A DRAFT AUDIT OF L.A.’S DEPARTMENT of Building and Safety exposes deep cracks in the foundation of the pivotal city agency whose leader already faces a contempt-of-court hearing in Orange County and questions about selective code enforcement.

City Controller Laura Chick’s preliminary audit, obtained this week by the L.A. Weekly, shows that the regime of longtime building-department general manager Andrew Adelman is plagued by improper oversight of building inspectors, poor enforcement of orders to correct building deficiencies, ineffective inspections, manipulation of inspection statistics to create a perception of efficiency, lack of training and certification of inspectors and a heavy backlog of inspections and open permits. Auditors found “inconsistent and arbitrary” discipline, even when inspectors were caught making “false or misleading statements, or misrepresentations in writing.”

“The Department is unable to monitor [inspection] activities in a way to ensure they are effectively meeting their mission,” the draft says of the inspection bureau.

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In the Code Enforcement Bureau, headed by chief enforcer Dave Keim, the draft audit identifies 330 of 15,000 unresolved cases that are classified as “high-priority or hazardous conditions.” Auditors have also identified a failure of code inspectors to meet training requirements mandated by state law and a lack of oversight of employees hired to ensure that buildings are safe. More than 60 of the 134 code inspectors hired between 1996 and 2003 fail to meet certification requirements under state law. Policy and procedure manuals are incomplete and the department has no specific criteria to determine the appropriateness of orders to abate, according to the draft audit.

“Performance measures focus on the closure of case files rather than measuring changes to neighborhood safety, appearance and economic stability,” the draft audit states.

Adelman took over the building department in 1997 under then-Mayor Richard Riordan, who recently referred to him as a “godsend.” Adelman’s mandate was to streamline the permit process, improve communication with property owners and city officials, and encourage development. The aggressive construction and development culture in Los Angeles since then has been matched by an aggressive attitude in the front office of the building department, according to numerous employee lawsuits filed in Superior Court. The lawsuits, some of which have been settled or dismissed, have charged that Adelman bullies and demeans employees, and that his top officials — executive officer Ray Chan, Robert Steinbach, spokesman and head of the grading division, and Keim, chief of enforcement — have manipulated civil-service rules to promote cronies and push aside detractors. In one lawsuit that settled, an employee alleged that Adelman shoved him in the chest twice. In a pending lawsuit, personnel director Gina Tervalon has filed declarations with the court alleging that Adelman instructed subordinates to mislead city officials about the preselection of promotions.

Adelman has declined to comment. His top officials say the lawsuits and the perception of brutality surrounding him result from the griping of a “few disgruntled employees.”

On Monday, Julie Butcher, general manager of Service Employees International Union Local 347 — which counts 400 building-department inspectors among its members — came to his aid. Butcher said that Adelman has simply followed orders from City Hall in running the department, and that his vision is the city’s vision. “He has done everything the city has asked him to do: build, streamline, stop the flow of complaints and be responsive to the mayor and the City Council offices.” Butcher disputed recent news reports suggesting that building inspectors are doing incomplete or insufficient inspections. “It’s complicated work. They are proud of what they do.”

On Tuesday, Councilman Ed Reyes said there is a need for more employees, and that a red-hot real estate market has put building inspectors in a crossfire between developers and stakeholders in various communities. “There is always room for improvement,” Reyes said. But the draft audit raises questions about whether employee allegations and development controversies are mere symptoms of deeper dysfunction. Controller Chick’s auditors have found more than 140,000 open building-permit applications that have not been formally closed, some with outstanding orders to comply with city law. They found that inspectors routinely eliminate rescheduled calls for inspection so they can avoid being classified on activity reports as “rollover calls,” which serves to lower inspection-completion ratios. Since 2000, rescheduled calls increased from 51,359 to 74,584 — an increase of 45 percent — while rollover calls fell from 3,312 to 756 — a decrease of more than 75 percent.

In addition, 51 percent of inspection customers who were surveyed said that inspections took between 15 and 30 minutes, risking a “compromise [of] the quality of inspections in order to focus on meeting the department’s time-frame requirements.” More than 30 percent of commercial and residential inspectors said they compromise quality because of time constraints. In terms of oversight, auditors found no policies for monitoring by supervisors or for follow-up inspections. “Field staff are provided very little supervision and oversight by more experienced senior-level staff members,” the draft audit states.

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