During its final hearing at City Hall, the committee invited citizens to suggest how to avoid demolition disasters. At least 12 people, mostly construction experts, former city officials and building tradesmen, signed up to testify.
Jay A. McCalla, a former city deputy managing director who helped oversee the demolition of thousands of vacant homes as part of a neighborhood-revitalization initiative under then-Mayor John Street, characterized the city's Licenses and Inspections Department as "woefully understaffed."
"A demolition that starts wrong is just going to continue to go wrong," McCalla cautioned.
City records released last month revealed that the demolition contractor hired to raze the building at 2136-38 Market St. had been cited by the city in May for starting interior demolition work before informing the city and for having asbestos-laced material in a trash container at the site. Also, the demolition permits offered no detail on how the work would be done, although such safety plans were not required to be filed with the city.
McCalla offered some of the afternoon's most comprehensive suggestions for reform: Contractors should be required to submit a demolition plan, which must be approved by a deputy commissioner within L&I; proposals should outline safety precautions and a plan for proper disposal of debris; an L&I inspector should visit the site at the start of any demolition to "eyeball the crew" and make sure workers are wearing helmets and "seem sober."
Prosecutors have charged Sean Benschop, a demolition subcontractor and excavator operator, with involuntary manslaughter for allegedly operating heavy equipment while impaired. Authorities say he tested positive for marijuana, but his attorney has said that marijuana can remain in the bloodstream for weeks.
Councilman Jones yesterday said the lax oversight of demolitions and construction by L&I has kept him and other legislators "up at night."
"Knowing how we've been operating, I don't feel safe," Jones said. "We should have said, 'What is your safety plan?' "
After listening to testimony from leaders of Plumbers Union Local 690, Councilman Jim Kenney expressed dismay about work done by contractors in the city without proper permits.
"The whole thing is just a mess," he said. "It's almost like an underground Wild West."
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