IBJOpinion

EDITORIAL: Building safety requires oversight

 IBJ Staff
November 6, 2010
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IBJ Editorial

The saga of the Di Rimini apartments is a cautionary tale, and one the city would do well to heed.

That this 31-unit structure at the corner of Capitol Avenue and St. Clair Street could be built and occupied despite multiple building code violations, more than 35 departures from the approved plans, and serious fire-safety deficiencies shows that the city needs to beef up its oversight of construction projects.

An IBJ story last week reported that the city allows developers to operate on a virtual honor system. They submit plans, secure permits and are on their way. City ordinances don’t even require building inspectors to visit construction sites, although developers must make their properties available for 48 hours.

In the Di Rimini case, an inspector did visit the site in June, months before the building was completed, and found multiple violations. The largest one was later addressed by a variance, which is typically easy to get. The code violations did not prompt a zoning inspection that would have revealed dozens of other violations, because the city’s 14 zoning inspectors respond only to complaints.

Clearly, coordination is lacking between city departments that review plans and those that perform inspections, and even among inspectors in different areas.

“At the end of the day, it falls to the builder that they meet code,” said Kate Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Code Enforcement.

The Di Rimini project is certainly an extreme example. The builder ignored a stop-work order issued by the city in September, and moved tenants in without obtaining the required certificate of occupancy.

But the city should not rely on builders to play by the rules. Assuring that buildings go up safely and according to the approved design is the city’s responsibility. In spite of lean budgets, the city must seek ways to tighten the inspection process. Public safety and the integrity of the plan review process demand no less.

Give group independence

Doubts about the effectiveness of the Indiana State Ethics Commission suggest the time has come for change.

Concern has been raised in the wake of Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission General Counsel Scott Storms’ move to Duke Energy. Storms was allegedly presiding over hearings involving Duke while talking to the company about a job.

Yet the ethics commission blessed his acceptance of the job and did not require any cooling-off period. As reported in a story last week, an IBJ review of 27 rulings by the commission back to 2006 showed the commission never prevented a state employee from accepting a private-sector job, and in only three cases required a cooling-off period. Independent ethics experts contacted by IBJ called some of those decisions too lenient.

One way to rebuild faith in the commission would be to give it more independence. Indiana is one of only two states in which the governor appoints all commission members with no oversight. Indiana should allow other officials to appoint some members, or have the General Assembly approve the governor’s choices.

A commission set up to protect the public needs to have the public’s trust.•

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To comment on these editorials, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.
 

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