Buildings Commissioner Changes Work Rules to Tackle Corruption
About once a week – like today – Richard Monocchio goes out looking for dangerous vacant buildings.
MONOCCHIO: So this one's been vacant for a while?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, this one right here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Doors open and everything.
MONOCCHIO: Okay, that one's open?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All the pipes in there and everything. Back door open and everything.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are you the alderman over here?
MONOCCHIO: I'm the building commissioner, ma'am.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Really?
MONOCCHIO: Yeah, how are you?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, beautiful.
Monocchio and his deputy, Jim Harney, walk around the back of the empty house next door to these people in the Englewood neighborhood.
It's strewn with garbage.
They go inside.
MONOCCHIO: You got the flashlight, Jim? Building Department! Let's see how structurally unsound it is. You got the floorboards coming through here, Jim.
Monocchio might not say so, but going on inspections like this is probably a pretty refreshing part of his job.
The rest of his days are dictated by scrutiny of a different sort.
Procedure by procedure, he's been putting in place new rules for how his employees work.
For good reason – since 2007, 14 buildings department employees have been charged in a federal bribery investigation.
Twelve have been convicted.
One alleged crime happened after Monocchio took over in April 2008.
MONOCCHIO: When you have a situation like this, when you have a history like this, you really have to show people, including your own employees that it is a new day.
There's not much in the new rules that sounds revolutionary.
But this is a department that long had a revolving door of commissioners.
Employees got used to operating like free agents.
Monocchio's directives include sending inspectors of new construction out in teams rather than on their own.
Requests for inspections are done online and handed out to inspectors randomly.
MONOCCHIO: We prevented this so-called cherrypicking of inspections. So a contractor and inspector for example couldn't set up an appointment to do an inspection. We do this centrally. We monitor every single one, we also have GPS.
Those GPS devices show an inspector's whereabouts all day long.
They were in use before Monocchio took over – but they're another attempt to short-circuit any opportunity for funny business.
Corruption hasn't been the buildings department's only problem.
Just when the department needed staff the most, it was shortchanged.
From 2000 to 2007 – the height of the construction boom - the number of inspectors fell 20 percent.
At a time when revenue from building permits more than doubled.
It's something Alderman Scott Waguespack can't understand.
SCOTT WAGUESPACK: Why was the money not put back into training professional staff or hiring more staff to make sure all these places were inspected correctly?
The mayor's office proposes the budget, but to answer that question….they sent me to Buildings Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey.
He says inspectors from other areas were reassigned to handle all the new construction during the boom.
But he didn't explain why all that building permit revenue wasn't used to just hire more inspectors.
Commissioner Monocchio says he's corrected a lot of the failures of those years.
His staff now checks up on contractors who haven't called to get their work inspected.
At the height of the rush, quite a few contractors never did.
MONOCCHIO: Do we expect compliance on the part of contractors? Yes. Are we naïve enough to think it always occurs? No.
People I spoke with who deal with the department say some things are getting better.
Marty Max owns apartment buildings in the city.
He says Monocchio is accessible.
One time they were emailing till 10 pm – when Max finally said, Commissioner, go to sleep.
And Max says building inspectors seem more professional now.
MAX: They're polite, they're maintaining their schedules as far as time. If they tell us 4:00, it's pretty much on time. Stuff that we really didn't have in the past.
Another man who's dealt with the department a long time - about 30 years - is Tony Menotti.
ELEVATOR VOICE: 9th floor, going down.
Menotti gets off the elevator at city hall to pick up a permit.
He's what's called an expediter-- hired by developers to get building permits.
He heads to the desk of Craig McLeary, a buildings department project manager.
MCLAREY: I remember this project. Should be real small. Single sheeter, right?
MENOTTI: Yes sir.
MCLAREY: Alright. We'll take a look.
MENOTTI: Here's a copy of my license.
MCLAREY: Oh we know you, you're a regular.
Menotti says he's glad expediters now have to get licensed in the wake of the bribery scandal.
And he likes that the department keeps making changes.
In February, they started reshuffling project managers to prevent people from gaming the system to get their favorite.
But he says he has one recommendation: The city should give contractors a test on the building code, like they do in Evanston or Highland Park.
MENOTTI: There wouldn't be any reason to bribe an inspector if the work was done right.
Long-time observer Dick Simpson says Monocchio's new rules are a good first step.
Simpson chairs the political science department at the University of Illinois Chicago.
But he says past scandals have yielded little in the way of permanent reform, and nothing's going to change until city government is free of machine politics.
SIMPSON: It's the culture of corruption that's built on an exchange of political actions for economic payoffs and the building department is only one center. Altogether 1,500 people have been convicted of public corruption since 1970.
Richard Monocchio says what he's doing adds up to culture change.
Simple things like having workers log the time they start and finish an inspection.
And when his staff has pushed back, saying the place is getting too `big brother,' he says he's told them, in essence, tough.
MONOCCHIO: Management has a right to know how many inspections are being done a day. That wasn't the case here for a long, long time.
Right now, with so little construction, it's a good time to overhaul the buildings department.
But the real test will come when things pick up again.
That's when Monocchio's inspectors will really have to be the efficient watchdogs they should have been in the last boom.