When Mayor Michael Nutter called a press conference on Oct. 26 to discuss a scathing story published about Philadelphia’s long-scrutinized Department of Licenses and Inspections, there was one person notably missing from the room.

Carlton Williams, the man who has headed up L&I since spring 2012, was nowhere to be seen. Nutter said not to read into the fact that he wasn’t there. But if anything, it made for interesting optics. The mayor was calling for a review of one of the largest departments in city government, and the leader of that department was nowhere to be seen.

Williams has navigated L&I through the last three and half years, and it’s hard to talk about that period without talking about the deadly 2013 building collapse on Market Street. And it’s that same fallout that’s plaguing him now as some city officials call for his resignation amid allegations the department has continuously been mismanaged since the Market Street tragedy.

Press accounts say the department has neglected to follow new rules put in place after the collapse. L&I continues to be scrutinized for the buildings across the city that remain in imminent danger of falling over. And after the department has faced a long history of bribery and corruption, the FBI is now poking around and looking into whether or not the department has continued to use questionable means to get results.

Williams has said he’s not resigning. But he’s also likely going to be replaced once the new mayor enters office.

Before L&I

Williams’ accomplishments were widespread — but they weren’t in the Department of Licenses and Inspections, nor were they in the realm of building construction and demolition.

The 2012 citywide winner of the Richardson Dilworth award for public service worked largely in advancing the city’s green infrastructure and working to build new playgrounds and recreation centers across the city before being promoted. Williams has been praised for his work in making the streets cleaner and the advocacy he practiced for children throughout his career.

Prior to working at L&I, Williams served for several years as the Deputy Commissioner of the Streets Department, where his accomplishments, as highlighted by the city, included “overseeing the Annual Philly Spring Cleanup, the City’s UnLitter Us Campaign and the implementation of Big Belly Solar waste baskets. He has also led the City’s recycling efforts, which include a now 20 percent recycling diversion rate and citywide weekly recycling.”

During that tenure, he also implemented a new “handheld computer system” for Sanitation Officers enforcing code and worked to develop a new anti-littering campaign. In 2012 just after he was named to his new position with L&I, Williams was written about in Governing Magazine for his ability to actually make the city cleaner even during a fiscal crisis.

Prior to working at Streets, Williams was the Deputy Commissioner for Recreation, a job he earned after a decade of service to Fairmount Park and work pulling together youth conservation programs. In the Recreation Department, Williams created the city’s first playground safety system and facilitated bringing in “spraygrounds” — AKA mini water parks that replaced old public pools.

A tenure marked by problems

Market Street collapse
Market Street collapse Credit: Fox 29

Just over a year after he was working on litter campaigns and trying to keep the streets clean, Williams — now the Commissioner of Licenses and Inspections — found himself as one of the figures at the center of a deadly accident.

Six people were killed and 14 others injured on June 5, 2013 when a free-standing wall near 22nd and Market Streets fell while it was under demolition, crashing into a Salvation Army store and wreaking havoc below. Lawsuits were filed. The contractor working on the demolition was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The City came under fire for what some called shoddy inspection work, and it highlighted problems within L&I — problems that stemmed from mismanagement and a major lack of funds and personnel.

Could better inspection practices have prevented the tragedy? Some seem to think so. The Department has had to answer questions as to why it wasn’t keeping better tabs on the demolition process. The inspector with the agency who was supposed to do that was found dead in an apparent suicide not long after the collapse.

Commissions and task forces were convened. They found that the department was understaffed and underfunded. The Mayor’s Special Independent Commission to Evaluate the Department of Licenses and Inspections reported that L&I’s 300 inspectors were asked to complete an average of 22 inspections a day.

Meanwhile, Williams was still the head of this agency that’s not only responsible for ensuring building demolition safety, but for all licenses and inspections across the city, even down to ones like where a pop-up beer garden can park itself.

Recommendations were made to overhaul how the department goes about inspecting and preparing buildings for demolition, and Nutter, for his part, vowed that L&I would be better funded moving forward — and the city held up its end of that bargain by pushing more money toward the department after Market Street.

“There have certainly been some changes made, most importantly requiring a demolition survey and plans,”Jeffrey Goodman, an attorney handling litigation related to the Market Street collapse, told Billy Penn this summer. “Those changes are good, but implementation is a key part of it.”

The jury’s still out on whether L&I has held up its end.

The City Controller released a report back in February that claimed L&I still needed some $14 million extra dollars and another 100 workers to effectively do what it’s supposed to do: inspect buildings and approve plans for demolition. At the same time, The Philadelphia Inquirer has been digging around in L&I’s paperwork and talking to inspectors about what’s going on behind the scenes, and it doesn’t sound good for L&I.

At one point earlier this year, the public perception of L&I was apparently so bad that Williams and the department spent $15,000 purchasing fake news stories — AKA advertorials — on Philly.com that depicted the department positively and noted that it was “shaping a safer Philadelphia.”

After a number of stories had been written about L&I in anecdotal cases failing to follow new rules set in place after Market Street, The Inquirer dropped this piece at the end of October that asked the question: “What new building inspection guidelines?” The story reported that, among other issues, the department failed to follow new guidelines in 80 percent of demolitions in the last nine months.

What happens next

When Mayor Nutter called his press conference after the story came out — the one Williams didn’t attend — he asked the Inspector General to launch a probe into the department. He didn’t say the Inquirer story was 100 percent correct, but he did say that if it was, it’s “tremendously troubling.”

City Inspector General Amy Kurland has begun her audit of the department, and it’s unclear how long that might take. Following the investigation, City Controller Alan Butkovitz called for Williams to resign, as did Melissa Murray Bailey, the Republican candidate for mayor.

Williams didn’t, and Nutter didn’t ask him to. Should the Inspector General’s probe last past the holidays, it probably won’t matter. Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has said before that there’s a good chance Williams is gone when he starts his tenure, and he’ll appoint a new head of the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

“Jim doesn’t think it’s fair to place the blame squarely on Carlton for L&I’s long-term, systemic problems,” his spokeswoman said, “but there’s clearly a desire for change.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.