Monday, April 28, 2008

Buildings Department Boss Undone by Her Lack of Savvy

By Kirsten Danis

She didn't see it coming.

Things had not been going well for Patricia Lancaster for weeks - even months - but when the city's first female buildings commissioner walked into a meeting with Mayor Bloomberg on Tuesday morning, she was not ready to resign.

Instead, Lancaster prepared for the fateful meeting by pulling together an update for her bosses on last month's deadly crane accident.

After all, Bloomberg had never ousted a high-ranking commissioner, not when the 2003 Staten Island ferry accident killed 11 people, not when 11 abused children died on the city's watch in 2005 and 2006 and not when two firefighters perished in August after the FDNY neglected to inspect the former Deutsche Bank building.

That morning, Lancaster, 54, would be the first.

Lancaster knew City Hall was growing cool, friends said. "She was starting to get a sense that she wasn't seen as a solution," said one friend.

Still, the commissioner - who has said she resigned and was not fired - did not start last week knowing she would end it without a job, sources said.

Bloomberg markets himself as a manager, not a politician, which makes it all the more ironic that Lancaster, a competent manager, was done in because she couldn't finesse the politics.

"She's never been part of the inner circle, ever," said one former city official who admires Lancaster. "She was never really confident with the folks at City Hall."

Most insiders agree that the beginning of the end for Lancaster came in January, when her department became the responsibility of Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler after six years under departing Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff.

Skyler, who also oversees the NYPD and FDNY, had a tougher eye for safety and operations.

Lancaster's biggest accomplishments - overhauling the building code and transforming the agency's paper-jammed files into an online, searchable system - will help build Bloomberg's legacy.

But they didn't help Lancaster when construction workers started falling from the sky. Thirteen people have died in building accidents so far this year, just one less than died in all of 2007.

Skyler was keenly aware of the department's public image, having been Bloomberg's spokesman for four years.

By all accounts smart, honest and dedicated, Lancaster wasn't savvy with the media (she told the Daily News last year she was afraid of walking under scaffolding) and didn't always grasp that in a crisis, just looking like you're in charge is half the battle.

"She was never really good at getting that persona out there," said the former official.

Recently, City Hall started pushing Lancaster into the spotlight, coming up with programs to show the department was working to prevent - and not just responding to - scaffolding and high rise accidents.

Even when the crane collapsed on March 15, killing seven people, Lancaster's fate wasn't necessarily sealed.

That moment came at a City Council hearing two weeks ago, when Lancaster conceded the tower under construction at the crane site did not conform with zoning codes and was wrongly given permits.

The testimony left the impression that the tower never would have been built if not for the continuing incompetence of the Buildings Department. In fact, it almost certainly would have gone up with some tweaks.

Another public relations misstep by Lancaster, but this time, it was fatal.


  1. The NYC DOB needs real reform and more boots on the street to inspect jobsites. Spend the money now so the city doesn't have to hold more press conferences to explain more wokers death.

    Back in April 1996, the then Mayor Rudy took out over 40 elevator inspectors for being bad.

    "Joel A. Miele Sr., the Commissioner of Buildings, said yesterday that he had called leaders of the real estate and building industries to urge them to commission private inspections in the next 60 to 120 days."

    This was back in 1996, they still used part time under paid people to do piece meal elevator inspections.

    Real Reform NOW

    Work safe !!!

  2. Yes I agree these improvements will increase the the public confidence in elevators. Which is why the regular Elevator inspections are important for safety purpose. Elevator inspections nyc


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