Lowell Sun: “Misleading, incomplete & biased”

So says City Manager Bernie Lynch in a letter addressed to the newspaper’s publisher and editorial board. The entire letter was posted today on the City Manager’s blog. The “misleading, incomplete and biased” labels were used by the manager to describe the newspaper’s recent reporting on the city’s Developmental Services Office. Here’s the full text of the manager’s letter:

The Lowell Sun’s coverage of the Development Services Office in recent weeks has consistently been misleading, incomplete, and biased. However, the editorial column that appeared in today’s paper clearly crossed a line into factual inaccuracy apparently intended to generate unwarranted and unconstructive fear on the part of the public. The responsible authors should be ashamed of both their clear lack of research into the matter at hand and any unjustifiable concerns this column may have created for readers.

Contrary to what was falsely stated in the editorial, 100% of the building officials working for the City of Lowell’s Division of Development Services are in full compliance with the applicable state standards. The Commonwealth’s Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) promulgates a clear multi-step process for ensuring the qualifications and competence of Building Commissioners and Local Building Inspectors. First, in order to apply for consideration as a municipal building official, an individual must meet the minimum qualifications established by Massachusetts General Law Chapter 143, Section3. All of Lowell’s building officials exceed these qualifications. Second, the BBRS must review and approve applicants to ensure they possess the required credentials to act as building officials. All of Lowell’s building officials have successfully obtained this state approval.

Only after obtaining approval by the BBRS can individuals interested be hired provisionally as building officials and become eligible for certification. The certification process, which for nearly all prospective building officials in Massachusetts begins after hire as a provisional building official, consists of a series of tests which cover various aspects of applicable codes. The tests are designed to confirm knowledge that candidates who the BBRS approves as provisional inspectors already are expected to possess, as Lowell’s state-approved officials do. The tests do not impart that knowledge as the editorial seems to imply.

Both the City Administration and the building officials themselves recognize the importance of completing these tests within the time periods allotted by the building codes for doing so. This directive has been given to all of the building officials from their dates of hire. Despite the misleading information published in the Sun, four of Lowell’s eight building officials whose positions require certification on or before the conclusion of their provisional employment periods have already obtained the required certifications and one has even obtained additional certifications beyond those required for his present position. The other four are all well within the allotted time periods for completing the tests

To help encourage employees to complete this certification process, last Spring the City and the inspectors’ union negotiated an incentive of additional paid hours for those who attain certification. The salary figures published in the Sun are only paid when the inspector completes the tests. Annual salaries for provisional inspectors are actually 13%lower. Both provisional and certified inspectors are also required to complete ongoing continuing education programs, which all of Lowell’s building officials are also fully participating in.

Despite what the recent newspaper coverage has suggested, whether or not current building officials have taken a series of tests administered by the International Code Council also had no bearing on the unfortunate incident that occurred at 231 Liberty Street earlier this Summer. The failure of the deck at this property was due to a hidden condition which was created when the decks were constructed at least 20 years prior. This condition could not have been observed by any inspector, or even a structural engineer, without partially destructive testing that is not conducted as part of a period inspection under the Certificate of Inspection process.
It would be legitimate to question the original builder of the decks and any inspections that may have occurred while the decks were being constructed. However, to link that incident to an inspection process which does not address hidden structural conditions or decks that do not serve as a means of egress is irresponsible journalism, especially when the reporter had been provided with this clarifying information and chose to disregard it. To further link it to a state certification program that Lowell’s inspectors are fully incompliance with is dishonest and disrespectful to the building officials and the citizens of the City who they serve.
The editorial’s one observation that is entirely accurate is that “The practical, time-tested way to rebuild public confidence in a department is to start from the top, hiring qualified leaders…” This is why the City chose to hire Robert Marsilia, who has over 30 years of experience in the construction industry ranging from small-scale homebuilding to overseeing safety inspections and performance testing for multi-million dollar commercial and industrial projects, as Building Commissioner. This is also why the City chose to compliment Mr. Marsilia’s private-sector technical experience by hiring Kendra Amaral, a highly competent municipal manager who has overseen successful reforms of municipal code enforcement departments, as the Deputy Director in charge of Development Services. The Sun’s ridiculous questioning of Ms. Amaral is akin to suggesting that T.J. McCarthy or Andy Sheehan should have been a certified building inspector when they provided similar management oversight to the then Inspectional Services Department from the City Manager’s Office.

While the Sun has published two critical stories and an editorial in recent weeks focused on a single misleading story about Development Services, they have failed to recognize the numerous accomplishments of the office, despite receiving multiple press releases. These include successful efforts to combat illegal apartments, proactive inspections to address safety in multi-family buildings and places of assembly, placing two of the most troubled buildings in the City’s neighborhoods under receivership, achieving nearly full compliance with the City’s vacant and foreclosed property registration ordinance, significantly improving the City’s follow-through in addressing code violations, and dramatically reducing the number of open permits that fail to obtain final inspections, a much higher rate of documented permit compliance activity especially for electrical work, among others. In early October, the Administration will be issuing a report the City Council which details the first year of the Development Services office. The report will illustrate why I remain grateful that the Council unanimously supported this reorganization plan in 2010

4 Responses to Lowell Sun: “Misleading, incomplete & biased”

  1. Steve says:

    I heard Bernie Lynch explain this situation clearly and fully on CAP the other day, after which I said to myslef, “This is a non-issue.” The Sun has some writers I really enjoy reading, Collins front page article on the Boshar kid last night was great, Barry Scanlon and Chaz Scoggins in Sports, and of course in former times, Dave Perry and Dan Shaugnessy. But on the local politics side, they sometimes present a view of things that is entirely distorted, and it seems there’s never a retraction when it becomes evident they got their facts wrong.

  2. Maxine says:

    Dan Phelps column this morning is definitely not an attempt to set the record straight. Unbiased and accurate reporting, NOT.

  3. Evelyn says:

    I enjoy reading Mr. Lynch’s letter, but question what qualifications he is referring to in MGL c. 143 Section 3, which sets forth objective criteria for being hired but also allows a Subjective “or any combination of education and experience which would confer equivalent knowledge and ability…” Since Mr. lynch does not state whether these individuals had the objective requisite education and job experience required, or if they were given a waiver based on the subjective standard, it is likely not a matter he feels comfortable discussing.

    Regardless of the lack of certification issue, what is more troubling is that the Board of Health Inspector filed a concern with the porch in question, as did the another agency at City Hall, and NOTHING was done about it… no follow up inspection, nothing. When the inspector went out to “collect the check and check the box” he failed to follow up on two reports concerning the deck and did not even look at it. This gross oversight is troubling.

    Now everyone caught with their pants down will hate the Lowell Sun for catching them, but try and say that there isn’t a problem with having more than 80% of your department un-certified does not pass the smirk test. When ambulance companies were caught with un-certified EMTs, people were rightly concerned. Here, the city was caught with un-certified inspectors and PEOPLE GOT HURT.

    Rather than make excuses, or attack the reporter who brought this tragedy into the open, make changes and make progress – they are much better than excuses.

  4. Politics at Work says:

    It is disappointing to see Dan Phelps repeating the inaccuracies and misrepresentations that were rampant in Moran’s articles and Campanini’s editorial. Apparently, no one at The Sun does any research these days. I agree with Steve that the paper’s local political reporting has become disgraceful. They don’t even try to hide their agendas.

    I am sad to see Phelps go down the same unethical path as Campanini and Moran. But then again, Phelps is no stranger to conflicts of interest. Isn’t he the guy who puts together The Sun’s schools pages but is also a part-time employee at Nashoba Tech doing PR work?