Mayor Nutter has been touting the changes in the Department of Licenses and Inspections as one of his administration's major reforms.
Likewise, when the often-troubled agency came in for some mild criticism over lax enforcement of towing-fee abuses recently, L&I commissioner Fran Burns was quick to protest that her department was much improved.
For proof, Burns wrote to The Inquirer, that the department's 2009 fiscal year report showed an agency "in the midst of a culture change, one with ethical leadership and momentum toward systemic change."
That may well be so. But the ghost of the bad old L&I — the one perennially dogged by corruption — reared its ugly head last week. Outgoing District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham announced the arrests of nine current and former city workers on charges that they looted homes while working for an L&I administered anti-blight program designed to aid homeowners.
The alleged scam is vintage L&I.
Elderly homeowners who expected to receive city-funded maintenance on their declining properties, instead found themselves ordered from their homes, which were then looted for valuables, Abraham said.
That scam gives new meaning to the acronym for the anti-blight effort known as the Community Life Improvement Program, or CLIP. It also shows that L&I's turnaround is far from complete.
This is an agency with a history of corruption and inefficiency. In 2002, 13 L&I plumbing inspectors were convicted of extorting contractors. The former head of the agency was convicted in 1999 of extorting food, drinks and sex from businesses.
While it is good to hear Nutter and Burns point to worthy improvements at L&I, the administration needs to remain vigilant in changing the culture of the agency.
Granted, L&I says the wait time for a license has been cut in half, and 89 percent of customers surveyed in recent months said they'd gotten "very good" or "excellent" service. Given the sorry track record of the agency, there was really nowhere to go but up.
The corruption case also shows that it takes only one high-profile incident like this to erode whatever new public confidence the department has earned.
The L&I arrests demonstrate once again that Nutter's emphasis on high ethical standards across city government is as necessary as it is welcome.
And it's good to remember that just writing something down in an annual report doesn't always make it so.