Public Safety Potentially At Risk In Some New York Municipalities
Generally 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 nonlicensed individuals. To the engineering community, these actions defy prudence, if not basic common sense.
The following examples point to the disturbing ripple embracing New York:
- The town of Colonie did not reappoint its longtime public works commissioner—who is a professional engineer—and instead replaced him with a nonlicensed individual, directly contradicting the town law’s requirement of a PE license to hold the position.
- Syracuse amended its city charter and hired a nonlicensed 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 process.
- New York City hired a nonlicensed 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.
Professional engineer David Janover, town engineer for Islip, a 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.
To 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 standpoint.
For 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.
Professional engineer James Yarmus, 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.”
Yarmus 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 appointee.”
So how does the engineering community make the case for professional accountability vs. tight municipal budgets?
Janover knows firsthand the types of issues that local government officials face daily. “In situations where nonlicensed personnel serve in positions of responsibility, a municipality may need to rely on outside professional consultants as needed 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 nonlicensed individual.”
Additionally, 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 disadvantageous position.
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 performing engineering.”
Some 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.
“I 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.”
Nominate Fellow Engineers for PEPP Awards
PEPP presents several awards each year to recognize noteworthy contributions to the consulting engineering field. Members may nominate individuals and organizations for the following PEPP honors. The awards are presented annually at NSPE's Annual Meeting.
The PEPP Award is given annually to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement and recognition of the role of private practice in serving the public interest.
PEPP Professional Development Award:
The PEPP Professional Development Award is presented to employers who exhibit exceptional career development initiatives and employment practices that advance the engineering profession.
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Happenings on the Hill
April 14, 2011NSPE Meets with Members of Congress
NSPE Treasurer Leanne Panduren, P.E., F.NSPE, Executive Director Larry Jacobson, and Senior Manager of Government Relations Sarah Ogden met with Congressmen Joe Barton, P.E. (R-TX-6) and David McKinley, P.E. (R-WV-1) and staff from the offices of Congresswoman Candice Miller (R-MI-10) and Congressman David Wu (D-OR-1). Topics of discussion included STEM education, Good Samaritan protection for professional engineers, and the critical role professional engineers play in nuclear safety.
April 7, 2011Get More Government Relations
NSPE Senior Manager of Government Relations Sarah Ogden presented a Webinar, "Engineering Public Policy," about how NSPE is making a difference for professional engineers in a challenging political climate embodied by a Congress divided against itself. View the entire Webinar here, or just look at the slides.
NSPE Supports Qualifications-Based Selection
Sarah Ogden also participated in a Council on the Federal Procurement of Architectural and Engineering Services meeting. NSPE is a founding member of COFPAES, an organization dedicated to protecting and promoting the Brooks Act (PL 92-582) and the use of qualifications-based selection.
April 6, 2011NSPE Addresses Students at DOT Engineers Program
NSPE President-Elect Christopher M. Stone, P.E., F.NSPE, was the keynote speaker at the Department of Transportation's Engineers Move America, an event directed toward high school students that recognizes the role of engineering in the nation's transportation program. In his address, Stone encouraged students to pursue careers in engineering to solve the challenges the world is facing. The program also featured remarks by Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari and panel discussions with representatives from the DOT operating administrations, other engineering organizations, and universities.
April 4, 2011NSPE Discusses Forensic Science Reform Act with Senate Judiciary Counsel
NSPE Executive Director Larry Jacobson and Senior Manager of Government Relations Sarah Ogden met with senior counsel from the majority side of the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act (S. 132). NSPE sent a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in March expressing concern about the bill's requirement that personnel at federally funded facilities who perform forensic testing, analysis, identification, or comparisons in a criminal context be certified. NSPE believes that professional engineers (and other licensed professionals) do not require further certification in order to perform forensic work in their area of expertise and should be exempt from the certification requirement.
The committee is eager to work with NSPE on the issue and is collaborating with NSPE on bill language to ensure that qualified, licensed professional engineers may continue to perform forensic work without further certification.
April 1, 2011NSPE Members Provide Valuable Feedback on DOT Issues
NSPE has completed its member survey regarding Department of Transportation regulations that impede the engineering profession. DOT is undergoing a regulatory review in cooperation with President Obama's January Executive Order, "Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review," which mandates all agencies to review their existing regulations to determine whether regulations are effectively promoting economic growth, job creation, and competitiveness without being unduly burdensome.
Thanks to the feedback NSPE received, NSPE was able to submit comments in time to speak at DOT's March 14 public meeting. (Read NSPE's comments here.) A second request for member input validated NSPE's initial comments. NSPE appreciates those who took the time to provide feedback on this important issue.
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Ethics Forum: Ethical Issues in Expert Witness Testimony and Public Safety
May 11, 12:30–1:30 p.m. (E.D.T.), 1 PDH
$99 for Members
This spring’s NSPE Ethics Webinars feature discussions with NSPE Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel Arthur Schwartz and members of NSPE’s Board of Ethical Review. Discussions center on decisions from the Board’s 2010 session. This session will combine expert testimony by engineers and various public health and safety issues, including:
• Agreement-limiting services for expert witnesses;
• Multiparty relationships;
• Off-site safety violation observation; and
• ADA guideline compliance.
Pending and Current Legislation, Rules, and Programs that Will Change How We Manage Stormwater
May 12, 12:30–1:30 p.m. (E.D.T.), 1 PDH
$99 for Members
This program will give an overview of federal programs, proposed EPA regulations, and design guidance and rating systems that will change the way we manage stormwater. The program will look at examples of green and LID methods and discuss some options for obtaining the same results using familiar technologies.
Engineering Your Career with a High Quality Social Network
May 19, 12:30–1:30 p.m. (E.D.T.), 1 PDH
$99 for Members
Social networking can be a powerful tool when applied to the pursuit of professional career development. Due to differences in objectives and audience, however, professional social networks need to be managed very differently than how one would maintain a social network of friends and family.
From the perspective of career development, a professional social network is a highly diverse tool that when used effectively, can grow one’s capabilities while simultaneously establishing resources for future development and work opportunities. The downside is that within this context, it also makes professional social networks naturally subject to a high degree of scrutiny from peers, colleagues, headhunters, and potential employers. Such scrutiny can open new doors or forever close existing ones.
To maintain a positive, forward momentum in extracting the benefits of professional social networking, an emphasis is needed on the quality of networking connections, not just the size of the network itself. To build a high quality social network as it relates to one’s career, participants will learn how to manage professional networking opportunities within the scope of four key elements: knowledge, skills, professional organizations, and personal growth.
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