July 20, 2006 - From the July, 2006 issue

Chick Offers Recommendations for Building & Safety; Faults ‘Low-Life' Media Reports of Audit

L.A. City Controller Laura Chick is making sure, through audits and reviews, that the city runs efficiently, effectively, and fairly. In July Chick set her sights on the often-praised Dept. of Building and Safety, run by Andrew Adelman. Two separate audits contend that the department is overlooking safety violations and that its finances are not as tight as they could be. TPR was pleased to speak with Ms. Chick about her findings and the state of the department.


Laura Chick

Your office has been conducting a series of audits of L.A. city departments, and just issued two audits (one performance; one fiscal) of the City of L.A.'s Building and Safety Department. What did those audits find?

They found room for improvements, as all audits usually do.

The performance audit looked at the inspection activities of Building and Safety, including inspection of new construction and code-enforcement inspection.

In a nutshell, without having the audit in front of me, it said that Building and Safety has made great strides in customer service and expediency. But they're really not measuring their performance in any other way. So the audit raises concerns that, for instance, there's no adequate supervision of inspectors in the field and that there are no real ways for the department to assure the public that the inspections are addressing public safety concerns when construction is occurring.

In terms of code enforcement, there is a backlog of required inspections in such serious areas as elevator inspections, and that some code violation cases have been on the books an awfully long time. And the department isn't collecting the fines on some of those violations. Importantly, the audit makes recommendations on all of these things.

On the fiscal audit, we looked at a variety of funds and also found room for improvement. There are, for instance, cash bonds that developers put up when they're doing grading and hillside projects, and there's money in there that can't be explained. It either should be refunded to developers upon completion of the work, or it should be used to correct problems. And we're also seeing that it's difficult to tell on some those projects whether there's been a final inspection and the grading actually occurred properly.

There are some excess funds that should have been transferred to the city reserve fund – a little over $1 million. Maybe the most disconcerting problem is the potential that Building and Safety has in effect over-collected on some of its permit fees at the counter. We're supposed to charge full recovery for performing a service, but no more than that. That audit makes recommendations not only to the department but also to our Chief Administrative Office to correct some of these things.

One of the findings of the performance audit focuses on the department's backlog-a problem afflicting a number of city agencies and departments. Eight-hundred B&S positions have been authorized, but only about half have been filled during General Manager Adelman's tenure. Isn't fully staffing the department the mayor's and Council's responsibility?

Some of the audits' findings, as well as others we do, are directly related to resources. Very often the audit will say that more resources are needed. And if the general manager isn't given those resources, then you can't hold the general manager accountable for fixing that problem. In this case, I think there has been some discussion that more inspectors were needed.

Happily, in this fiscal year the department is getting more positions. Whether that's adequate or not, I don't know. But another explanation for the case backlog, the audit points out, is that Building and Safety depends on other departments/agencies for closing out a case-the City Attorney's Office, Planning Department, and, in some cases, the LAPD are also involved. On some of the most egregious cases, I think we point out that there needs to be more teamwork by and with some of the other agencies involved.

Andrew Adelman, whom Mayor Riordan hired, has been externally admired over the years but internally challenged by disgruntled employees and some contentious land use attorneys. How do your audits sort through the political noise and focus on the practices that the city and department might be able to address?

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Whether I'm using my city staff or a contracted firm, my auditors are very professional. And they're trained to cut through the political static and the personal vendettas and to make findings based on provable, solid facts. I think we've been successful. What I'm never successful at, however, is controlling the media. My title of controller does not extend to that.

Unfortunately, some members of the media not only listen to the disgruntled employees but also take what they're hearing as fact. Unfortunately, in this general manager's case, some of the information that's been in the media has nothing to do with his performance for the city and the public and has everything to do with what I consider very low-life motivations on the part of anonymous and, I would say, cowardly detractors of the general manager.

The LA Weekly, which many believe published an unfair hatchet job about Andrew Adelman, obviously had access to information from drafts of your audits before they were released. Have you a reaction?

Total dismay. The sanctity of our audits is of the utmost importance to me. I feel that way about the findings and their basis on fact, and I feel that way about the process by which we conduct and release the audits. This was a first for me. The first time in five years as city controller and over 100 audits that there was what we would call a leak.

And what a leak! A reporter got hold of the actual point sheets, which are for discussion before a draft audit is written and reviewed by the auditee to make sure that we have our facts straight. Facts can change, because we work with the department to make sure we state things accurately and we give them an opportunity to argue with us or prove us wrong.

We are examining our internal processes to see if we can both keep the good parts intact – such as sharing information with the auditee and checking our facts, which are, by the way, required by government auditing standards – and at the same time to ensure that information is not released inappropriately and prematurely as in this case.

When a firestorm rises around a general manager, especially with someone well-known and respected, people always ask if that manager is in political trouble or on the way out. You may not be able to address such speculation, but what are your general reactions?

I have just had a conversation with the general manager at his request, and I'll repeat what I said to him. There is no intent or desire or plot to get rid of him. I recommended to him that he put his many talents, energy, and expertise into addressing the problems that the audit raised and solving them. He should stop looking over his shoulder, because it's a waste of his energy.

I also expressed empathy for what it feels like to have the media, I think, do not just a hatchet job but a persecution. To bring personal information into a discussion of someone's job performance is as low-life as you can get, in my opinion.

I've thought a lot about advice to other general managers, and I always have said, first of all, they shouldn't wait for me to come in and do an audit. They should be asking questions themselves and reading the audits to learn from some of the problems in other departments, because these are not unique problems. Secondly, audits are not about blame. In this case, the audits look at the general manager as accountable for solving the problems that were raised but not as responsible for creating those problems.

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