Former L&I commissioner wants the mayor to apologize

Bennett Levin, the former Licenses and Inspections Commissioner who blasted the agency two weeks ago in testimony to City Council, wants an apology from Mayor Nutter for suggesting that Levin was out of touch with L & I’s current operations.

Appearing before a Council committee investigating the city’s demolition practices, Levin said that the Center City building collapse that killed six people in June was the latest in a series of fatal accidents that were at least partially attributable to the poor performance of L & I and other city agencies.

Levin, the L&I commissioner from 1992 through 1995, in the first half of the Rendell administration,  cited the deaths of three city firefighters in the 1991 Meridian high-rise fire; the 1997 death of a Common Pleas Court judge, hit by debris falling from a dilapidated parking garage on South Broad Street;  the 2000 collapse of Pier 34 on the Delaware, killing three women at a waterside restaurant, and the deaths of two more firefighters last year in the collapse of a vacant Kensington mill.

Asked for a response on August 1, the mayor’s office issued this statement, attributed to the mayor:

“The former Commissioner has a right to his opinion as a private citizen, but many things have changed in the Department of Licenses and Inspections in the almost two decades since he was in city government. I cannot imagine that he meant to slander the reputations of the many fine people who work at L & I.  I cannot comment on what happened prior to this Administration, but the Department has made significant improvements in recent years while maintaining its mission of public safety.
L&I now approaches that mission with a more qualified staff, improved technology, and streamlined processes, all while continuing to work with the public as their partner in building safety.  There will always be work to do as we continue to improve our processes throughout City government, but I am proud of what has been accomplished.  We remain committed to providing the best level of service to all Philadelphians.”

Levin, now 73 and living in Bucks County, objected, first in a letter sent to the mayor August 4, citing several places in his testimony where he praised individual L & I employees.

  “My remarks . . . were not an indictment of either you or your administration,” Levin said. “They were a history lesson tempered with almost 25 years of experience as member of the Board of Building Standards, then its chairman and finally the Department’s Commissioner. I think you would have a hard time finding someone who has as much experience as I do in how that department should function….My comments were directed at the organizational structure and circumstances in place long before you took office.”

Levin concluded that letter by stating, “As a ‘private citizen,’ I am owed a public apology.”

This week, after hearing nothing more from Mayor Nutter, Levin wrote another letter to the mayor, and released the correspondence Tuesday.

“I contended in my testimony the problem is not with the employees but rather the manner in which they are organized into working units, the priorities that are set for them; and most important, how they are directed and managed,” Levin wrote. “I think that not only am I owed an apology for how you miscast my testimony, but so are all of those who work hard at L & I under what has been from time to time questionable leadership.”

He also criticized an organizational change implemented by Nutter, having the L&I commissioner report to the deputy mayor for economic development rather than the city managing director. It created the impression, Levin said, that protection of public safety was not the department’s prime mission.

“I urge you to reconsider how you have structured L&I,” Levin concluded. “It is not too late to bring reform if there is the political will. You are the Mayor and the responsibility is yours.”

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