Next NYC mayor must improve Buildings Dept.

The main entrance to Gracie Mansion. The main entrance to Gracie Mansion. Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New ...

The narrative of this mayoral race has unfolded like a soap opera.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn revealed her past eating disorder and drinking binges. Anthony Weiner, famous for "sexting" and lying about it, prepares to declare. Suspense surrounds Comptroller John Liu and what may follow the federal convictions of his former campaign treasurer and a donor on conspiracy charges.

But let a building collapse or a crane fall and everyone forgets the foibles. Sooner or later, the sprawling Buildings Department will provide a crucial reality check for the next mayor.

Some say the city's problems monitoring structures go back nearly to the mayoralty of Peter Stuyvesant. But the bureaucracy has sunk into scandal repeatedly in just the past 20 years.

In 2009, Manhattan prosecutors accused the Luchese crime family of infiltrating the department by placing crooked inspectors in its ranks. The year before, a fatal crane accident on East 91st Street led to revelations of graft, fake reports and approval of designs in violation of zoning.

Those scandals were Mayor Michael Bloomberg's problem. But his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, wasn't spared; under his administration the agency was beset with payoff charges against elevator inspectors and an uproar over how the site of a fatal Brooklyn construction accident was overseen.

Does the new mayor who takes over next year make a clean start of this important function?

"You can't just start over with the Buildings Department," said Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress trade group. "There's so much invested in the structure and apparatus of the department. It's a complicated situation."

Some mayoral candidates sound aware of the troubled legacy -- and the slim resources available to beef up department staffing. Given "enormous" fiscal challenges, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, a Democrat, said through a spokesman, "No New Yorker can accept delays or fraud to get small things done." He vows to assign a deputy mayor for infrastructure. For his part, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, also a Democrat, says the department should be "revamped top-to-bottom" with an aggressive inspector general to combat fraud.

Bottom line: This mayoralty is no ambassadorship or congressional seat. Hard management problems can be a protracted nightmare. The question for voters involves who's ready wrestle with this particular bureaucratic devil.

When Bloomberg first took office, he shelved a plan presented by Giuliani in 2000 that, among other measures, would have merged the buildings agency into the Fire Department. Bloomberg aides said at the time it would have required a voter referendum. The idea hasn't been heard of since.

For his part, Anderson credits the Bloomberg administration with progress.

"They've improved staffing, the time it takes to get approvals, the overall process," he said. "Most would say it's better than the disaster it was 12 years ago -- but it's still not there."

There remains a cottage industry of so-called "expediters" hired by architects, property owners and builders to get Buildings Department approvals -- which Anderson calls "tangible testimony to the fact that this department needs work."

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