Much Less Oversight on Private Demolitions, Committee Hears

For more than two hours, Council members sitting on a special investigative committee formed in the wake of this month’s fatal building collapse questioned top city officials about demolition standards and other issues, while assiduously avoiding any direct reference to the disaster itself.

The collapse, during a demolition at 22nd and Market Streets, killed six people and injured 13 others when an unsupported wall toppled on a Salvation Army thrift store.

The operator of an excavator on the site was charged with involuntary manslaughter and other crimes after a toxicology test determined he had smoked marijuana.

Other than that arrest, blame for the collapse has swirled, with questions being asked about the actions of the contractor, the building owner and city agencies responsible for overseeing the demolition. A slew of investigations, including a criminal grand jury, are ongoing.

The Council committee, however, was not formed to place blame, said the chair, Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr.

“We will take facts and create good public policy,” he said.

The questions covered a wide range of topics, but the most pointed concerned how the Department of Licenses and Inspections determines that contractors are legitimate, upstanding businesses and how the city treats public demolition jobs versus private jobs, such as the one at 22nd and Market.

L & I Commissioner Carlton Williams, who answered questioned along with Mayor Nutter’s chief-of-staff, Everett Gillison, admitted that L & I did not previously address whether the permitted contractor was the one actually doing the work at the site.

Mayor Nutter announced a series of changes in the wake of the disaster designed to improve oversight of contractors and demolitions.

Before those changes, Williams said, the city had strict standards for public demolitions of government-owned properties, and L & I was intimately involved in making sure those standards were met. But for private demolitions, the responsibility fell to the contractors to adhere to safety standards.

“But it’s our responsibility at some point when we issue a permit to ensure a contractor doing a demolition is doing it safely,” said Councilman James F. Kenney.

“The standards they have to come up to are the same as we do on our own,” Gillison said. “We just don’t dictate to them.”

Testimony continues this afternoon with City Controller Alan Butkovitz taking questions.

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