Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s plan Monday to split the controversial Bureau of Building Inspection from the Department of Public Safety exposes a rift between two of the mayor’s top recruits.
Peduto said during his “State of the City” address Monday that the move is designed to streamline permitting and ensure the “highest levels of building safety and performance.” His office denied that Public Safety Director Stephen A. Bucar and BBI head Maura Kennedy cannot work together.
But a City Council member and other administration sources said the two Peduto appointees have had problems for months.
“She does not want to accept the authority of the Public Safety director, which really scares me, because you can’t have a public safety emergency with two people trying to run the show,” said Councilwoman Darlene Harris of the North Side, the only council member to oppose Kennedy’s hiring in March. “This cannot be good for the city of Pittsburgh.”
Administration sources confirmed there has been friction between the two.
Kennedy declined to comment.
Bucar said he could neither confirm nor deny problems with Kennedy. He said he doesn’t have a problem with the mayor’s plan if BBI maintains a focus on public safety.
Bucar, who also oversees the fire department, police, emergency medical services and animal control, said bureau chiefs sometimes disagree with his directives. “But we work through them in a professional manner,” he said.
Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty said, “Maura is doing a great job at BBI. That’s why this department is being elevated. I don’t know anything about any kind of rift.”
Kennedy, who held a similar position in Philadelphia, arrived in Pittsburgh with a reputation for cleaning up blighted properties.
Peduto’s chief of staff, Kevin Acklin, said the city’s permitting system is archaic and split between city departments.
Making BBI a separate department will make it easier for developers and residents to get permits for such things as new construction and trash bins.
“It’s all about reducing the friction of doing business with the city,” Acklin said. “Right now … it’s difficult to do business with the city. You have to know the ropes.”
It’s not because of a rift, he said.
Council has long been critical of BBI, saying the department is slow to react to code violations in neighborhoods and takes too long to issue permits.
Controller Michael Lamb said he agrees with streamlining permitting, but the city can do that without breaking off BBI.
“I’m concerned about taking the focus away from what is our primary responsibility, which is to protect people,” he said.
BBI, among other duties, conducts regular inspections at new construction sites to ensure that safety code regulations are being followed. It does the same for building demolitions.
Under the mayor’s proposal, which is subject to council approval, BBI would operate as its own agency, reporting to Peduto and council. Its name would change to the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections.
Peduto said BBI and the departments of Planning and Zoning, along with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Housing Authority, would form a Neighborhood Reinvestment Alliance.
Harris questioned Kennedy’s qualifications for the $100,889 position early on, noting that she lacks a degree in engineering or architecture and 10 years of experience, all of which were listed as minimum requirements in the BBI chief’s job description.
“I do not support BBI leaving Public Safety,” she said. “It’s a Public Safety function.”
Kennedy, 33, has a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in government and is pursuing a Master of Business Administration from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Peduto administration officials have said she completed a state certification to administer building codes, also required in the job description.
Under Kennedy’s supervision, BBI inspectors got email capability for the first time, along with laptops and smartphones.
When Peduto visited BBI offices in July, Kennedy reported that building permits were up by 16 percent over 2013 because of an increase in commercial and residential construction.
Employees told the mayor that morale is low in some quarters, but administrators are working on improvements.
Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or email@example.com.