CITY CONTROLLER LAURA CHICK’S scathing audit this week shows an out-of-control Department of Building and Safety that allows developers to have their way with Los Angeles at the expense of public safety.
Keeping with the harsh tone of the draft audit obtained two weeks ago by the L.A. Weekly, Chick found building inspectors who are pressured by higher-ups and others to avoid writing orders to correct code violations. Sometimes, when inspectors do issue orders, repeat offenders thumb their noses without penalty. Chick pledged to “stay inside the department” while reforms are put in place, with the mayor’s support. “There are problems just waiting to erupt,” she said. “Whether pressure [to avoid enforcement] is political, comes from developers or from supervisors, all of that is wrong, and it should stop.”
Evidence abounds that the situation is out of hand. On Monday, as Chick was releasing her audit, more than 40 McMansions were under construction in a 10-block area of Laurel Canyon, where neighbors have screamed themselves hoarse over what they see as violations of city laws and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). At four of the building sites, neighbors observed construction under way on Sunday, a violation of city law.
In a gesture of too-little, too-late, General Manager Andrew Adelman began promising to halt previously approved construction projects and send them back to the building department for environmental review. Deputy Mayor John Brady was still recovering from his own tour of Laurel Canyon and dealing with e-mails from residents insisting that their concerns were just “the tip of the iceberg.”
And Adelman’s newly retained private attorney had just finished asking an Orange County judge for more time to resolve an illegal addition to a Westside home that has Adelman facing contempt charges.
How did the building department get so far out of control? And is the general manager the only one responsible for the mess? Those who know Adelman well, including his ex-wife, say that he acts on orders from City Hall.
In response to Chick’s audit, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sent a letter to the Board of Building and Safety Commissioners instructing them to submit a corrective plan and address her recommendations, which include reducing a backlog of code violations, better training of building inspectors and coordinating with city planners, police and the city attorney. The mayor’s spokesman Joe Ramallo said, “The mayor regards Laura Chick’s audit as a road map for change.”
The public thrashing of the embattled Adelman had begun. Just last week, Deputy Mayor Bud Ovrom saw the department’s performance through a more positive lens. “The general manager is doing a good job. There have been improvements in a department that needed it.” In many ways, perhaps, Adelman was just doing what he was hired to do in 1997, when former mayor Richard Riordan brought him on board to speed permit approvals and improve communications with City Hall. He did. In 2002, for instance, Adelman met with developer and accused campaign-money launderer Mark Abrams — right after Abrams donated generously to then-mayor Jim Hahn’s antisecession campaign. Soon Abrams had his permits. By Monday, however, Ramallo was distancing himself from the deputy mayor’s statements. “Mayor Villaraigosa’s ethical expectations are clear. Anyone who is not toeing the line will face the most serious consequences.”
Chick’s audit comes as no surprise to employees who have complained for years that Adelman has run a fee-driven regime that champions development at the expense of regulation, crushing dissent through intimidation and alleged manipulation of civil-service rules. In addition to a review of employee lawsuits, the Weekly has obtained letters written over the past several years to Villaraigosa and Hahn that describe a department run amok.
RESIDENTS FROM PACIFIC PALISADES to Glassell Park have brought detailed complaints to the attention of city leaders for years about the “mansionization” of Los Angeles’ hillside communities. They saw no action. E-mails and letters reviewed by the Weekly show persistent allegations of CEQA violations and city laws including the hillside and retaining-wall ordinances.
“Dear Councilman Jack Weiss,” reads an e-mail from Laurel Canyon resident Carolyn Carradine, “I implore you to side with your constituents who are appealing the [removal of dirt] at 8538-8550 West Lookout Mountain Avenue. This will result in a massive amount of earth being moved in a neighborhood already under siege with building permits handed out like candy.”
A recent visit by the Weekly to the narrow, hilly streets showed plans under way for three four-story concrete-and-steel homes that will excavate 5,500 cubic yards of dirt and require 600 trucks to remove it. City hillside ordinances require environmental review for removal of more than 1,000 cubic yards of dirt. The developer originally received a “categorical exemption” from the department. On Tuesday, the Board of Building and Safety Commissioners took the rare step of recommending approval of a “haul-route” appeal brought by the Hillside Federation, requiring environmental review of the construction, which the Planning and Land Use Management Committee then approved. Weiss also introduced a motion that the building department approve soils and geology reports before accepting applications for haul-route hearings.