speaking, the unseen chain reactions that occur every day through the laws of
nature, science, and physics are a good thing; they help sustain life.
Sometimes, however, a chain reaction has the opposite effect, creating a
potential for adversity to public safety. Such is the case in several New York municipalities
where professional engineers in public service have been replaced with unlicensed
individuals. To the engineering community, these actions defy prudence, if not
basic common sense.
following examples point to the disturbing ripple throughout New
- The town of Colonie did not reappoint
its longtime public works commissioner—who is a professional engineer—and
replaced him with an unlicensed individual, directly contradicting the town’s
law of a PE license to hold the position.
amended its city charter and hired an unlicensed individual to replace its
water commissioner who took a job with the Mohawk Valley Water Authority in Utica. Ironically, his unlicensed
replacement will be making a higher salary, according to online news sources,
which implies that economic stress was not a leading factor in the selection
York City hired an unlicensed engineer
as commissioner of buildings, resulting in a lawsuit being filed against the
mayor by the New York State Society of Professional Engineers (NYSSPE).
- In its classified ads soliciting
candidates for public works superintendent, Washington County
has stated that it would consider a non-PE for the position, although to date,
the county’s Web site still lists the previous licensed engineer in this post.
Janover, P.E., town engineer for Islip, a small municipality
of 330,000 located on Long Island, points out,
“While I am unaware of other levels of public agencies following this trend, I
am concerned that this could catch on and spread as neighboring municipalities
tend to act similarly.” His contention is that if Municipality A removes a
licensed professional from its public works division and saves money, then neighboring
Municipality B will see this and may be pressured into following suit,
particularly during recessive economies.
counter this trend, Janover suggests that professional organizations need to be
the “voice of reason” in moving forward with open dialogue in municipalities
across the United States,
all for the purpose of expressing concern and discouraging behavior that could
jeopardize public safety and possibly burden local governments from a liability
instance, not only is NYSSPE engaged in a legal harangue with government
officials from the city of New York,
it also stands behind a Colonie resident who has filed a lawsuit in the New
York Supreme Court. His suit alleges several violations of local and state laws
by actions promulgated by the town supervisor and governing board, among those
being the replacement of Colonie’s public works commissioner with a non-PE.
Yarmus, P.E., in addressing the Colonie supervisor back in January as president
of NYSSPE, emphasized, “We realize that due to the economy, there may be a
desire to reorganize your operations; however, such changes should not
interfere with sound professional judgment. Removing the professional
engineer’s requirement from a position that is so immersed in technical
decision-making is not a wise way to streamline operations.”
also published an editorial earlier this year in the Buffalo News, opining that the unlicensed individuals replacing
qualified professionals may be certified by new groups to “create the illusion
of competency and to generate the needed perception of legitimacy for the
how does the engineering community make the case for professional
accountability versus tight municipal budgets?
knows firsthand the types of issues that local government officials face daily.
“In situations where unlicensed personnel serve in positions of responsibility,
a municipality may need to rely on outside professional consultants to provide
the necessary knowledge in design or inspection services,” he explains. “This
alternative, however, will most likely result in a higher cost to the
municipality than the difference of the salary between a licensed and an unlicensed
he says that if the commissioner of a local public works department is not a
PE, some municipalities may rely on laborers or other experienced field
personnel to make engineering decisions. This approach, he warns, could have
potentially serious repercussions involving decision-making at a higher level
beyond one’s pay grade (a civil service issue). Should any contentious issues
arise as a result of such decisions, the municipality will be in a
Indeed, Janover’s warning is actually good advice. As shown earlier in
a number of instances, town councils or governing boards have entertained
resolutions to remove the PE license requirement as a condition for holding a
critical job position. “They may believe that they are legally following the
proper procedure,” says Janover, “but if it is deemed that engineering duties
are the responsibility of this position, it is considered illegal by New York to have a nonengineer
municipalities, he adds, have skirted the licensing issue by having a deputy
commissioner or lower-ranked individual within the public agency be responsible
for the engineering duties, while the commissioner (unlicensed) is responsible
for administrative decisions. However, this approach, too, is likely to raise
legal concerns should administrative duties sometimes contravene the practice
of engineering, casting doubt in the public’s perception of its elected and
appointed officials to act responsibly.
see the hiring of a licensed professional from the onset as its own insurance
policy,” Janover observes. “The bottom line is that when the safety, health,
and welfare of the public are at stake, we cannot afford to cut corners.
Taxpayers deserve a professional in the administration of a public works
hierarchy. From a budgetary standpoint, municipalities should be aware of the
higher cost over time by not hiring licensed individuals at the top. The
risk and liability assumed by any municipality could be substantially minimized
in this way.”