Playing Politics with Public Safety

In the wake of the tragic nightclub fire in Rhode Island last winter, most cities and towns in the Commonwealth have become more serious about code enforcement and the broad issue of public safety. Here in Springfield, however, we are apparently going in the opposite direction.

The city’s Building Department is currently rudderless and woefully understaffed. There is no building commissioner per se — the the man who owns that title, Peter Garvey of East Longmeadow, is officially on unpaid leave, but working a full-time job with Barr and Barr Inc., a regional commercial builder, and reportedly trying to figure out what to do with his life. At the same time, an official from the Personnel Department is signing the checks and keeping track of payroll, while the people left in the department can’t begin to keep up with the workload.

Meanwhile, the city’s senior building inspector, Steven Desilets, has been promoted to acting assistant building commissioner, passed over for the top post due to politics, not credentials. What that does is give the city someone who is properly credentialed in a position of quasi-authority — someone who can sign permits and legally conduct inspections. What it doesn’t do is resolve the larger issue confronting the city — a situation where an office critical to public safety and economic development is being run into the ground in the name of cost-cutting and politics.

To be succinct, Springfield needs a full-time building commissioner — not four months from now when the Albano administration thankfully comes to a close, or whenever Garvey decides to end his leave in the private sector — but now. And we urge city officials to take the steps necessary to resolve this matter and give this department leadership.

What’s happening in the Building Department — or not happening, as the case may be — is very important to the business community and to the public at large, for a number of reasons.

For starters, the department is, in effect, City Hall’s liaison to the business community. Anyone who wants to construct a building, put on an addition, add a pool, or install a new bathroom needs permits from the building office to proceed.

Many business owners have seen their projects delayed over the past year because inspections are backlogged and paperwork is getting lost in the shuffle due to a lack of personnel. And when businesses can’t move forward with their projects, they move on to other cities and towns without Springfield’s problems. The city also loses vital revenue when inspections — for which businesses and individuals are charged a fee — are not conducted.

But the larger issue is public safety. The Rhode Island nightclub fire showed just how critical it is to have each and every nightclub, bar, and restaurant inspected regularly for code violations. Springfield has a large stock of older buildings that could become instant death traps. It appears the mayor doesn’t feel it’s an important issue. But this city can’t keep the public safe if it doesn’t have enough people to conduct needed inspections.

Yet, staffing is only one reason why the Building Department is in such disarray. The larger issue is leadership, or a lack thereof.

The department didn’t have much leadership when Garvey was on the job. Nor did he set a good example by misleading city officials and the press about his residence, according to sources (department heads are required to live in the city; he did not). But it’s had no leadership since he took the private-sector job.

It appears the mayor sanctioned Garvey’s leave as a cost-cutting move; one can’t fill a position if it is technically still occupied, and with Garvey on leave, the city can save his salary or use it to keep other people employed. While that might help Springfield with its current budget crunch, it is putting the city in a very dangerous position — one where it is playing with fire, figuratively if not literally.

The Building Department is certainly not the only city department facing difficulties. There have been layoffs across the board, including devastating cuts in the schools and police and fire departments.

But the building office is one of the three pillars of the city’s public safety infrastructure, and it needs a solid foundation — it needs leadership. A police department or fire department can function without a chief, but it shouldn’t. And neither should a department that plays such a critical role in business and economic development.

The city should move immediately to put a qualified, full-time commissioner in the Building Department, and then give that individual the tools needed to get the job done. In short, Albano should stop playing politics with public safety.