Bennett Levin, the former commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspections who blasted the agency two weeks ago in testimony to City Council, wants an apology from Mayor Nutter for his 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 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 poor performance by 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 One 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 Aug. 1, the Mayor's Office issued this statement, attributed to Nutter:
"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."
Levin, now 73 and living in Washington Crossing, Bucks County, objected, first in a letter sent to the mayor Aug. 4.
"My remarks . . . were not an indictment of either you or your administration," Levin wrote. "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 cited several points in his testimony where he praised L&I workers by name and concluded by stating, "As a 'private citizen,' I am owed a public apology."
This week, after hearing nothing more from Nutter, Levin wrote another letter to the mayor, and released the correspondence Tuesday to reporters.
"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 put in place by Nutter, having the L&I commissioner report to the deputy mayor for economic development rather than the managing director. It created the impression, Levin said, that protection of public safety was not the department's primary 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."
Nutter's top spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the mayor intends to answer Levin's letters, but has not gotten around to it and does not intend to apologize.
"He's got nothing to apologize for," McDonald said. "The mayor will thank him for the letter and tell him he's entitled to his opinion. We actually have a different opinion. We just need to move forward on what's important, and that's protecting the citizens of Philadelphia. That's what L&I has been and is committed to."