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David Perri won’t pay for good press. The incoming commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections is still working out what changes he’ll make to the embattled organization, and how he’ll implement them, but one thing is certain: He won’t be spending taxpayer dollars for glowing headlines.
That tactic was employed by outgoing L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams, who last summer authorized $15,000 for a trio of positive advertorials published on Philly.com. It was a last-ditch move, because public opinion of his department had plummeted.
L&I has been beleaguered almost since inception. In the 64 years it has existed, more than 50 employees have been fired or arrested for corruption or incompetence. Less than two years ago, the deputy commissioner was charged with extortion. Then there was the deadly Market Street collapse, an incident eventually blamed on private contractors but one that raised questions about demolition procedures and was followed by the suicide of the L&I worker in charge of inspecting the site. Investigations by the Philadelphia Inquirer uncovered possible manipulation of records and other ethics violations, and we here at Billy Penn revealed that the FBI may be investigating the department for bribery.
So Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has announced that new commissioner will be David J. Perri.
The 57-year-old Perri, currently Streets Department commissioner, also has years of experience at Licenses and Inspections itself, at one point holding the title of deputy commissioner. Billy Penn had a chance to sit down with him for a brief conversation about his plans for L&I’s future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why should you run L&I?
Part of it is that I’m a professional engineer, and the code of ethics for an engineer is that you place public safety and public welfare above all other considerations. L&I is a department in which public safety has to be held at the highest priority.
But beyond being an engineer, I was at the department for a number of years. I started as a building plans examiner, I was the building permit supervisor, I was the permit services manager. I worked for a while as the chief code engineer, I was in charge of license issuance, I was in charge of the real estate certification unit. I’ve been out and inspected and done reports on building failures. So I’ve got a wide breadth of knowledge about the exact nature of the work that Licenses and Inspections does.
So you have a lot of experience there. Why is corruption so endemic to the department?
[Shakes head dolefully]
Any ideas? Because if you’re planning to change it…
Any individual can get themselves involved in a bad situation. Go back to Adam and Eve with the first bite of the apple. People are inclined to do things that may not be what they’re supposed to do.
Yeah, there’s temptation out there. That, no one can ever change, because it’s human nature. What you can do, as a manager, is to prevent that from becoming a prevailing attitude in the department. Prevent it from becoming a corrupt organization in which folks know that that’s going on, and turn a blind eye.
When I was first there, around 24 years ago, I remember hearing about a plumbing inspector who was taking money. So I went to my supervisor and I said, “A customer told me that the plumbing inspectors are taking money! What should we do about it?” He said, “Well, nobody’s been indicted.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, nobody’s been indicted so we don’t have a problem.” I was just incredulous. It’s like, nobody’s indicted because you’re not doing anything about the evidence that’s right in front of you!
You saw it first-hand.
So I can guarantee to the citizens of Philadelphia that if there’s an instance, or if there’s any type of activity that is corrupt in nature, we will be proactive in going after that. You can’t prevent it, but you can certainly be proactive in making sure that the folks that were doing it are dealt with, and that there’s a clear message to the supervision that they have a responsibility to keep their eyes and ears open. Because human beings are susceptible to temptation. It’s human nature.
Would more of a paper trail help fix corruption? A person who used to work for the department told me that sending email regarding pending permits was looked down upon, because it would leave a paper trail. How can we make sure the department workers are accountable?
Well, you make as much of the permit data visible to the public as possible. The bigger a spotlight you put on the organization, and the permits that are issued, the less likelihood there is of corruption taking hold. It’s like, you turn on a light, and the cockroaches scatter. Making the data available will have a huge impact.
What about the fact that the database — HANSEN — was recently shown by reports to be easily manipulable and falsified?
There’s a whole new computer system coming that’s going to replace HANSEN. I’m not directly familiar with HANSEN; I left just as they were bringing it in. But the Nutter Administration has already started the process — we’re bringing in a system known as ECLIPSE, which will basically take over for the existing data systems that the department has.
So there will be technology changes; will there be personnel changes?
No decision has been made on personnel. In the budget, there is an item in there for additional inspectors for the next fiscal year. But in terms of appointed positions, there’s no decisions that have been made. And as Mayor-elect Kenney has said publicly, we’re examining the possibility of having a deputy commissioner who could be more focused on business services, so that public safety can be my main focus.
On the public safety side of things, in an interview after the press conference announcing your appointment, you told Fox News that one of your goals was to “short-circuit the process” and make sure demolitions happened faster. Isn’t short-circuiting part of the problem of what’s been going on with demolitions? Rushing things seems to be what led to falsification of database entries. And even the Market Street collapse — there were procedural issues, but I’ve been told by people familiar with the project that it was a rush job.
I wasn’t saying “short circuit” the actual process of doing the demolitions. I’m talking the administrative process of getting a building that’s imminently dangerous up in the queue to the point where we can start the actual demolition. It was not saying, “Let’s just go out there and take it down by any means possible.” What I was talking about was trying to figure out who the owners of the properties are, so they can be served quicker. Trying to work with the Law Department to get cases in front of a judge so they can be disposed of faster. Getting beyond the bureaucratic hurdles.
What are those hurdles; what is taking so long in the first place?
There’s apparently a delay from when the department creates a case until it gets disposed of by the Law Department. There’s a time delay in there that we need to take a hard look at.
You don’t know what is causing it yet?
I don’t know yet. It’s all part of the transition process. I have meetings set up with the Law Department and with various folks that are knowledgeable on this. I need to hear them out and get answers on why it takes so long to do certain things.
Is having too small a budget part of the problem? Would increasing L&I’s budget help get things done faster?
I haven’t completely evaluated the budget at this point in time. But I think historically the department has been underfunded, and given more tasks than it can handle.
It’s a very broad department. Do you think it should be split up?
One of the recommendations coming out of the Mayor’s Advisory Commission [for the Department of Licenses and Inspections], which I served on, was to split it into two departments — Business Compliance and Division of Buildings. That’s still being vetted, internally. The thing about making two departments is they would be tiny, so why duplicate the administrative needs? You’ll have two commissioners, two heads of human resources, and what are you really gaining from that?
I think the intent of the investigatory commission was to not burden building inspectors with non-building issues. It came out as “split it into two departments,” but if the Building Division is kept intact, with a firewall around it, then building inspectors aren’t worried about whether or not some company has paid its tax bill, or whether or not a tenant in the building is licensed. That way they can focus on the public safety aspects, and another group can handle the non-safety code enforcement issues.
After the most recent Inquirer reports, Mayor Nutter asked the Inspector General to open an investigation into what’s going on at L&I. Is that still ongoing? Will that affect what you do when you take over?
The IG’s office is an independent office, as they should be. And they’re free to do their investigations to whatever conclusions are going to be reached. I do have a meeting set up with the IG to find out where they’re at in their investigations, and what their recommendations are.
What about the public perception of L&I? Under Williams, the department bought some sponsored content articles on Philly.com —
We won’t be doing those types of purchases.
Is public perception an important factor at all?
Yes, I think the public needs to have confidence in the department, it’s really important. I think we can gain confidence by making sure that public safety is paramount and is our number one priority. We do need need to communicate with the public. The Fire Department gives out smoke detectors. The Police Department works through the Police Athletic League. L&I needs to also be proactive and work with the citizens in educating them on safety.
We also need to be talking more to the media. We need to get our message out. Because there’s a great story to tell. One of the things that tugged me back to L&I is something I remember from 9/11. I was the Deputy Commissioner at the time. A group of building inspectors came to me and they were crying, they said, “Look, can you call New York City, we want to go up there and help.” That’s the kind of people that L&I has. And that’s the story that the public needs to hear.