Ex-city cop tapped to head scandal-plagued buildings department
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter December 10, 2013 5:10PM
Felicia Davis. | Sun-Times Library
Updated: December 10, 2013 6:38PM
A former Chicago Police officer who has emerged as one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s most trusted advisers was chosen Tuesday to lead Chicago’s scandal-plagued Department of Buildings.
Felicia Davis replaces attorney Michael Merchant, who was promoted to the job of Chicago Housing Authority CEO after Charles Woodyard was forced out.
The CHA subsequently acknowledged that it settled a sexual harassment complaint against Woodyard for $99,000 on the day before he resigned.
Emanuel’s decision to tap Davis for the $157,092-a-year job leaves the Department of Buildings in the hands of an African-American. That’s politically important, since there is a shortage of African-Americans in the mayor’s cabinet.
Even more important is the law enforcement background that Davis will bring to a department that has been a constant source of corruption and controversy over the years.
“The No. 1 thing I’m going to do is make sure we maintain the integrity of the department. Obviously, there have been some challenges in the past. But in the last few years, there haven’t been any issues,” Davis, 44, said Tuesday.
“There are safeguards in place and improvements that have been made to guard against past challenges. The auditing of work being done by inspectors and reviewers to make sure that it’s complete and accurate, especially when it’s self-certified. Additional technology so we can easily track things working closely with developers.”
She added, “One of the most important things is to enforce the city’s building code. It’s a public safety issue. My law enforcement background was about enforcing a similar set of codes.”
Davis was asked whether the city has enough building inspectors to inspect elevators, porches and buildings to ensure public safety.
“If there’s something we can improve upon, we will absolutely do that. We’re going to look to make sure we have the right complement on our team. Where we need additional expertise, we’ll get it,” she said.
Under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, the building commissioner’s office was a revolving door.
The $32 million-a-year Department of Buildings generated a string of negative headlines after the E2 nightclub disaster, the Lincoln Park porch collapse and episodes of falling terra cotta.
One of the ugliest chapters included Operation Crooked Code, the undercover investigation jointly run by the federal government and the city’s inspector general that triggered charges against 29 people — 17 of them city employees — and produced 21 guilty pleas.
All were accused of participating in a scheme to overlook potentially dangerous building code violations in exchange for bribes. Payoffs also were passed to expedite permit plans.
Under Daley, the department also: hired the teenaged sons of Carpenters Union officials to serve as building inspectors; issued a residential permit in a planned manufacturing district to a developer who took the commissioner’s handpicked deputy on a spring break trip to Brazil; and saw one of its inspectors accused of falsifying a report on a building where a porch railing snapped, killing a 9-year-old girl.
Now, it’ll be up to Davis — the former police officer-turned Kendall College administrator who led the search that culminated in Garry McCarthy’s appointment as police superintendent — to keep the department out of the headlines.
“Beginning with her role in my transition, Felicia has been an invaluable member of my team,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a news release.
“Felicia’s diverse background as a police officer, college administrator and in community engagement will continue to serve her well as she takes on this new role to enhance service efficiency, promote public safety and advance economic development throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods.”