After the collapse – will anything really change?

    By the end of the week, I may be the only person left in Philadelphia who hasn’t either opened an investigation into last week’s building collapse or proposed a plan to prevent it from happening again.

    City Council is investigating. The District Attorney has announced a grand jury investigation (we’re still waiting on the one announced after the Kensington fire more than a year ago). Those two probes are in addition to the one opened last week by the city inspector general, and the forthcoming cascade of civil suits.

    The mayor has announced new regulations and inspection protocols for demolition projects, and at least two state lawmakers promise legislation. I have no doubt there will be more.

    I want those responsible for this atrocity held accountable, too, but I wonder if a year from now, all the furor over slipshod demolition and shady contractors will have changed anything.

    In 1996 a massive fire of discarded tires shut down a section of I-95, and for a weeks politicians and TV crews were all over the issue of tire disposal.

    In 2000, a nightclub on a pier in the Delaware River collapsed and killed three people. City inspectors were immediately dispatched to examine every pier on the river.

    And last year, the tragic Kensington fire that killed two firefighters led to a new focus on large, abandoned properties.

    Getting the job done

    The changes Mayor Nutter announced last week to make demolition projects safer are impressive (see the list here). The question is whether the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections can really do all this stuff in addition to the other burdens they carry, many of them heavier because of past disasters.

    There will be a debate about getting more funding and personnel for L&I, but I want to make a simpler point: local government matters, and finding the right managers for departments like this is critical.

    I’ve seen a lot of people in city government over the past 25 years. Plenty of them occupy the corner office while things in their departments go on as they always have.

    Then once in a while, but you see somebody who has the vision, guts and managerial skill to make change. It’s not easy in the public sector, but it does happen.

    It means getting better technology and putting it to good use. It means understanding the arcane civil service system and making it work. It means listening to union leaders and joining them in common purpose. It means holding supervisors accountable for getting the job done. I’ve seen it happen, and it can be inspiring.

    I can’t say know the current L&I managers well enough to judge them. I have no doubt Inspector General Amy Kurland will take a hard look at how the department responded to complaints about the job at 22nd and Market.

    I come back to a simple point. Candidates for mayor in the 2015 election will soon be preening and asking for our support. One of the first things we should look at is the kind of people they surround themselves with. If they haven’t attracted quality people this far in their careers, don’t expect them to start when they get to city hall.

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