By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008
District officials fired seven construction inspectors yesterday -- nearly a fourth of the commercial inspection force at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs -- and promised to recruit better-trained workers to approve major renovation and construction projects across the city.
The dismissals were the latest move in a months-long push to rid the District of run-down properties. Last month, DCRA Director Linda Argo fired more than half of the city's housing-code inspectors, who are responsible for ensuring that rental properties are clean, safe and well-maintained.
Commercial inspectors sign off on major electrical, plumbing and structural renovations as well as the construction of new properties. They did 23,000 inspections last year. Argo dismissed the inspectors because they failed to become certified by the International Code Council, an organization whose residential and commercial building standards are followed by many states, including California, Texas, New Jersey, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Argo, who was appointed in mid-2007, demanded last year that all inspectors become certified. The agency spent tens of thousands of dollars for on-the-job classes, study materials and vouchers so inspectors could take the certification tests for free. The commercial inspectors were required to become certified in building codes as well as in their specialties.
By yesterday's deadline, seven had not taken the test or passed, and Argo sent out termination letters. The inspectors have 15 days to appeal the decision.
"My goal remains to professionalize our inspections divisions through increased and ongoing training," said Argo, whose decision was supported by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). "As with the residential inspectors, this was not the outcome we had hoped for, but we must move forward with a professionalized staff."
The seven inspectors, who had worked for the city an average of 15 years, drew salaries ranging from $62,000 to $80,000. Argo said she will begin an extensive recruitment campaign in October to fill the positions. In the interim, DCRA will hire temporary inspectors.
The dismissals were met with resistance from the American Federation of Government Employees, which called on the D.C. Council to investigate.
"This is a complete sham to cover up management failures," Leisha Self, a legal rights attorney at the union, said in a written statement. "It is no secret that DCRA is a mess. This is endemic to what we've seen in other D.C. agencies, and frankly we are concerned as there is no legal reason why these inspectors should be fired."
Union officials said that the inspectors were properly certified and that Argo was requiring them to learn about code violations that do not apply in the city. A city official said the standards will be adopted this fall.
For months, city leaders have pushed to overhaul DCRA and better protect tenants following a Washington Post investigation that found that landlords, under the city's watch, were driving families from rent-controlled apartments to reap millions converting to condominiums.
Earlier this year, Fenty announced that the city would begin regularly inspecting every rental property. The District has also asked D.C. Superior Court to place more than a dozen troubled properties under the supervision of an independent officer, who would have the authority to seek fines and penalties against owners who refuse to repair their buildings.