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Audit Finds Lax Enforcement of Building Codes

L.A. controller says a backlog of inspections is creating safety issues and costing the city money.

July 11, 2006|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety has been lax in enforcing building codes, allowing many violators to skate with minor fines or no penalty at all, according to a city audit released Monday.

City Controller Laura Chick said there were 150,000 building permits that expired last year without the department's final approval, and more than 13,600 unresolved code violations.

"My audit is clear: the Department of Building and Safety has some real deficiencies in its enforcement of building safety laws, supervision and quality of inspections, and consistency and effectiveness of enforcement," Chick said.

The audit found that the department has a "significant number of backlogged" inspections, including 4,400 elevator inspections -- or 20% of the elevators requiring annual review. Besides safety concerns, that has resulted in the city missing out on up to $1 million in inspection fees.

About 2,400 inspections of gas shut-off valves installed for earthquake safety are also overdue for inspection, the audit found.

Auditors said building owners have largely been allowed to voluntarily comply with building and safety directives, with little follow-up, but 32% have not done so as requested by the agency. If noncompliance fees had been charged in all cases, the city would have collected $5 million, the audit states.

The audit also found that training, certification and supervision of inspectors for the department are lacking.

In response, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa directed the city Board of Building and Safety Commissioners in writing to determine how the department can better fulfill its mission to protect the lives and safety of the public and contribute to economic development. The report, Villaraigosa said in a letter, "raises questions about the department's operations in pursuit of this mission."

The audit was released at a time when the department and its general manager, Andrew Adelman, are already fending off criticism of unequal enforcement of building codes.

Adelman has been ordered to appear before a Superior Court judge Thursday to answer why he should not be held in contempt of court for ignoring city zoning rules in approving a controversial home remodel in Pacific Palisades.

In response, the department has revoked Mehr Beglari's permit for the already completed $1-million addition in Rustic Canyon. Neighbors sued, claiming the addition was 14 feet too close to the street based on city building codes.

The controller's audit, which looked at random case files to determine how inspections and compliance orders are carried out, said the lack of enforcement is more widespread.

The issue has taken on added urgency because the city building boom has resulted in a 20% increase in permit applications in the last four years, including proposals for 70 high-rise buildings.

Despite the increased workload, Chick said the department's staffing has remained fairly static.

She said the department "has focused more on improving customer services rather than maintaining public safety ... and that's just wrong."

Chick's audit cited 13 problem areas and made 33 recommendations for fixes.

Among the problems: the code enforcement bureau's discretionary use of enforcement has resulted in inconsistencies in how, or if, property owners are penalized for continued violations.

"In some cases, the fees levied are so minimal that many building owners willfully remain in noncompliance since it may be cheaper to violate the code and pay the penalty than it is to fix the safety violations," the controller said.

Of 222 cases looked at by auditors where a wall or building was declared in danger of falling down, 185 were still unresolved after 60 days and fines were assessed in only 12 cases.

Auditors conducted a survey that found 20% of the building inspectors said they are sometimes or more often pressured not to write orders or notices to correct violations.

"That concerns me enormously to hear that inspectors are under pressure," Chick said at a City Hall news conference. "Whether it's political pressure, whether it's pressure from the developer, whether it's pressure from the inspector's supervisor, all that is wrong and it should stop."

The survey of city inspectors found that 51% believe they compromise the quality of their work at least sometimes because of time constraints, the audit states.

Dave Keim, a department spokesman, said the agency needs to review the audit before commenting on detailed findings, but said that it will implement recommendations that will improve the department.

Keim said the increased workload without additional staffing has resulted in delays in some processes.

But, he added, "We feel very strongly that the buildings we live in and work in this city are safe and safer than buildings in any other city in the nation. We have not sacrificed safety for customer service."

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