by Corey G. Johnson, California Watch
Newly appointed State Architect Chester Widom said yesterday that he is "digging deep" and looking at all possible solutions to address issues cited in a recent audit critical of the state's seismic safety regulator for public schools.
Speaking for about five minutes near the end of yesterday's state Seismic Safety Commission meeting at the Delta King Hotel in Sacramento, Widom described his 49-year background as an architect and advocate for seismic safety. But he made only a passing reference to a California State Auditor report that found the Division of the State Architect's construction oversight to be “neither effective nor comprehensive.”
As a staff member gave each commissioner a copy of the report, Widom stressed he had been on the job for only seven days and was limited in his knowledge of the regulatory agency. He assured commissioners that the problems raised in the report and recent news reports were a "high priority" for him. He said he would be open to talking about the matter separately with individual commissioners or at a future commission meeting. Widom was tapped to lead the office by Gov. Jerry Brown in December and began working Jan. 1.
"I can tell you I've looked at (the audit report) very carefully, and I'm working very, very hard to address the issues that are shown in there," Widom said.
The Seismic Safety Commission is made up of individuals chosen for their expertise and experience. The group includes the state architect, a geologist, a fire department representative 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.
Yesterday, no commissioners asked Widom any questions. Two members said they hadn't seen the audit prior to receiving it at the meeting. Richard McCarthy, executive director of the commission, said he looked forward to scheduling a future briefing from Widom, sometime in the coming months.
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.
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.
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.
Before becoming state architect, Widom served as national president of the American Institute of Architects in 1995. He spent more than 40 years running his own architectural firm, WWCOT, before retiring in 2008. After retiring, Widom joined the bond oversight committee for the Los Angeles Unified School District and provided input on construction project planning as the top architectural adviser to the Los Angeles Community College District.
As he focuses on addressing weaknesses cited in the audit, Widom said he also wants to change the image of the Division of the State Architect with school districts and design and construction professionals.
"We want to partner," Widom said, "and not look like we are causing problems or standing in the way of progress."
- On Shaky Ground - California Watch investigation into failures by the state's chief regulator of construction standards for public schools.
Corey G. Johnson is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch reporting here.