Buildings and Inspection #3 | Elevators & Hearings

Over the past few weeks at the Department of Buildings I’ve rotated through a variety of tasks. I’ve sorted through old and troubled buildings in the Conservation bureau, I’ve done research on natural gas piping for Code Compliance, and last but not least, I’ve helped in the day-to-day workings of Chicago’s Annual Inspection Certification (AIC) project.

First, a bit of background: all of the elevators in Chicago need to be inspected annually, but there are a lot more elevators than city-employed inspectors. To combat this problem, the AIC project allows building owners to hire registered third-party inspection companies. In an ideal world, every building owner gets their elevators inspected on time, pays the fee, and no one thinks twice about stepping into an elevator.

Alas, the world is far from ideal. Some owners don’t get their elevators inspected and certified within the calendar year, and continue to not do so well past the deadline. For these owners, an administrative hearing is held.

This brings me to my favorite experience so far as an intern – sitting in on an administrative hearing. It’s a quasi-judicial process, so it functions like a trial – with lawyers, evidence, and sometimes witnesses. For the elevator bureau, however, most of the action happens in pre-trial. There, an attorney for the City will often negotiate a settlement with an attorney for the building owner. The building owner usually walks away with a fine plus a requirement to get an inspection done within a certain number of days, and the city then has one more elevator that will soon be certified safe.

I’m sure that last paragraph has few literary equals in its potency as a sleeping aid; why, then, did I find the hearings to be my favorite part of the internship? For starters, it’s satisfying to see all that deskwork come to life. It’s one thing to know that elevators are required to be inspected in Chicago, but it’s another to see enforcement of that rule unfold in front of you, with attorneys working to reach an agreement that is just and fair. Some cases are fairly simple and settlements are reached quickly. Other, more complex cases have the attorneys much more animated. They’re throwing around fine amounts, rules and regulations, and inspection histories; they’re pulling out deeds and certificates from past years; one building owner even tried to schedule an inspection on that same day! The one thread that holds it all together is the blind attorney who handles most of the cases.

I would be very remiss if I did not mention her. She’s worked with my supervisor, who oversees the AIC project, for over six years. Up to that point I’d only seen blind attorneys on TV, and seeing her in action was revelatory. During negotiations with building owners, she was the one taking charge, explaining the city’s stance, dictating terms, and so on. She also handled other cases – many involving troubled buildings – and, as I watched, almost effortlessly transitioned from explaining the requirements of the inspection program to one building owner to explaining permits for masonry or wood for another. Her commanding presence and the ease with which she wielded rules and statutes belied her disability, and it was amazing to watch her at work – even more so when I considered the effort she put in and the obstacles she faced compared to attorneys who were not disabled. We spoke briefly after a case, and I later learned more about her background from my supervisor. To write that she was inspirational would be trite. But I’d like to believe that I walked out of the Administrative Hearings building having learned about government, and also a few things about disability and perseverance, too.

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