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NYC official resigns over construction deaths

In recent weeks, some elected officials and newspaper editorial boards had put pressure on Patricia Lancaster to resign from her job as New York City's building commissioner.John Smock / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The city’s buildings commissioner resigned Tuesday, a day after Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was unhappy with the agency and the rising number of fatal construction accidents this year.

Patricia Lancaster, an architect who overhauled the city’s 40-year-old building code, increased department staffing and introduced several new rules to manage building safety, quit after six years on the job.

“I made this decision because I felt it was time to return to the private sector,” she said in a statement. “I am proud of the groundbreaking work the department has done during my tenure to root out corruption, increase transparency, overhaul the building code and increase safety for workers and the public alike.”

But Bloomberg earlier said was not satisfied with the city’s Department of Buildings and wanted to know what went wrong.

The deaths include seven people who were killed last month when a crane toppled over and a window installer who fell nine stories last week when his safety strap failed.

In the first case, a city inspector was arrested and resigned after authorities said he falsely claimed he had inspected the crane.

Lancaster admitted at a City Council hearing last week that her department had improperly approved a construction permit for the building where the crane collapsed.

Bloomberg doesn't defend Lancaster
In recent weeks, some elected officials and newspaper editorial boards had put pressure on Lancaster to go, and Bloomberg made the rare move Monday of not immediately defending one of his agency heads against the public outcry.

“I don’t think anybody should be fully satisfied with the Department of Buildings,” he told reporters. “Whether they’ve done everything they can or not is something I’m looking at.”

The billionaire mayor is known for his fierce public support of employees, associates and allies who come under fire.

When two firefighters died last year in an abandoned building at ground zero that was later found to have not been properly inspected by the Fire Department, Bloomberg tirelessly defended his fire commissioner against calls for his resignation. He did the same in the past for those in charge of homeless services and child welfare when their departments faced scrutiny.

And he took a lot of heat for his refusal to condemn the head of Consolidated Edison Inc. for his leadership of the private utility company following crippling blackouts.

Bloomberg’s lack of defense for Lancaster could foreshadow a management shake-up at the department — or it could be his attempt to signal to her publicly that she has to get the agency in order.

Bloomberg appointed Lancaster, the first woman to lead the Buildings Department, in the first few months of his first term, in early 2002. His assignment to her was to “fix the agency,” one that he recently described as “severely understaffed and deeply demoralized” when she inherited it.

'Self-certification' criticized
Critics of the department say it has been a mess since the 1990s, when it created a “self-certification” system to streamline the permit process. Self-certification lets architects and engineers confirm on their own that some plans comply with regulations, instead of having department inspectors do it independently.

A 2003 audit by the city comptroller found that 67 percent of self-certified applications contained errors; a separate audit in 2004 found that inspectors rarely followed up after issuing violations at building sites, even when hazardous conditions were discovered.

The department’s inspections staff was drastically reduced in the 1990s. When Bloomberg took office, there were just 277 inspectors. He has credited Lancaster for raising the number to more than 400.

Bloomberg reminded buildings employees at an agencywide meeting in February that their job is “to save lives.”

“And let me make it as clear as I can,” he said at the time. “Simply shrugging your shoulders and saying, ‘Well, after all, construction work is a dangerous occupation,’ is behavior that will not be tolerated from anyone.”

Speaking at a news conference Monday, Bloomberg acknowledged that the building boom increases the chances that things will go wrong.

“If there’s more construction, it makes common sense that you probably have more accidents or mistakes made, but that’s not an excuse, and I’m looking into it,” he said.