Department of General ServicesState Architect Chester Widom
Newly appointed State Architect Chester Widom is slated to discuss today what steps seismic regulators are taking to address problems with their enforcement of earthquake safety requirements for public schools.
Widom will brief the state Seismic Safety Commission in Sacramento about a scathing California State Auditor report that concluded that the Division of the State Architect's oversight of school construction projects was “neither effective nor comprehensive.”
Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the Department of General Services, the parent body of the state architect's office, said Widom will provide a copy of the report to commissioners and briefly answer questions.
The Seismic Safety Commission is made up of commissioners chosen for their expertise and experience. The group includes the state architect, a geologist, a fire protection specialist and a local building official. Established in 1975, after the 1971 San Fernando earthquake, the commission investigates earthquakes, researches earthquake-related issues and recommends threat reduction policies and programs to the governor and Legislature.
Widom was tapped to lead the office by Gov. Jerry Brown in December and began working Jan. 1. Lamoureux said investigating issues raised in the audit and helping the office respond have been Widom's top priority since he began.
The session with the Seismic Safety Commission is likely the first of several public meetings where Widom will discuss the actions of engineers, supervisors and managers at the state architect's office.
Additional questions loom in the face of new revelations that state regulators routinely destroyed key documents that might have shed light on their lax enforcement of earthquake safety standards – despite a binding agreement it has with the State Archives to preserve public records.
Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett, D-San Leandro, is planning a hearing of the Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness to learn more about problems at the regulatory agency.
Corbett and other legislators called for the audit of the state architect's office in May after a California Watch investigation found that the agency routinely failed to enforce California’s landmark earthquake safety law for public schools – known as the Field Act – and allowed children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards reported during construction. All public schools must be certified as meeting Field Act standards, and school board members, builders, architects and inspectors can be charged with a felony for failing to follow the act's provisions.
More than 16,000 school projects currently lack Field Act certification, and at least 59,000 more have yet to be fully reviewed by the state architect’s office to identify their Field Act status.
State auditors found that the state architect's office rarely used the enforcement tools it possesses, didn’t adequately document the safety issues it identified and didn't prioritize projects with safety concerns. The report also noted breakdowns in the state's oversight of inspectors.