Foss: Grand jury’s findings are troubling

The two men criminally charged in connection with fatal Schenectady fire were little more than cogs in a dysfunctional machine
Chris Jackson of Jackson Demolition uses caution while removing the side wall of 100 Jay St. after the fatal fire.
Chris Jackson of Jackson Demolition uses caution while removing the side wall of 100 Jay St. after the fatal fire.

My husband and I dealt with code enforcement when getting our apartment ready to rent. 

The inspector dinged us for one thing: The color of paint on our house number, which at that time was painted the same color as our house. “It should be a contrasting color,” he explained, “so that people can see it from the street.” 

It was an easy enough problem to fix and I was happy to do it, but a friend of mine rolled her eyes when I told her about our experience. 

“That’s how it is with codes,” she said. “You ask them to look at your property and they hit you for the smallest things. But if you walk around town you’ll see plenty of properties that are falling to pieces. What is being done to hold their owners accountable?” 

For those who live in Schenectady, for a long time the answer appears to have been: not much.  

How else to interpret the revelation, contained in the damning grand jury report released earlier this week by the Schenectady County District Attorney’s office, that the city Fire Department filed 14 reports concerning 104 Jay Street with the city Codes Department?

These reports noted the lack of fire doors in stairwells and inoperable fire alarms, among other things. 

One especially prophetic and sickening report detail, filed a year before the deadly fire that killed four of the building’s tenants, stated that the “building poses numerous hazards that can/will be fatal to its occupants and EMS.” 

This report should have been taken seriously. 

It should have resulted in action — in an effort to make sure the building in question is a safe place to live. 

But it didn’t, and four people are dead as a result. 

The whole thing makes you wonder how many other buildings there are like this in Schenectady — buildings that are not up to code, that put residents and neighbors at risk of injury, even death? 

My guess — based on conversations with residents and what I’ve observed when walking or driving around Schenectady — is that there are a lot. 

Certainly, the grand jury report makes it clear that the code violations at 104 Jay Street were symptoms of a larger, more systemic problem, namely a Codes Department that appears to have ignored some pretty egregious violations. 

It places blame for the deaths of Harry Simpson, Robert Thomas, Jermaine Allen and Berenices Suarez at the feet of the city, and recommends changes aimed at improving the department and preventing similar tragedies. 

It makes it clear that the two men charged in connection with the fire, property manager Jason Sacks, who pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide, and former city inspector Kenneth Tyree, who was ultimately acquitted, were little more than cogs in a dysfunctional machine. 

When you combine the grand jury’s findings with the state Comptroller’s audit of the Codes Department, an ugly picture emerges. 

Indeed, these reports make it easy to see how a problem like 104 Jay Street might go unaddressed, despite sitting directly across the street from City Hall. 

According to the grand jury report, the city lacked a system to log, track or ensure that code violations had been addressed by property owners. This troubling lack of follow-up pretty much ensures that violations will go unaddressed, because there won’t be any consequences for not addressing them. 

The comptroller’s audit points to a significant flaw in the city’s inspection process for multi-unit buildings: It relies on apartment owners to voluntarily sign up for inspections when a new tenant moves in or a building’s ownership changes hands. 

In other words, an honor system for landlords. 

Might this explain why there are so many blighted properties in Schenectady? 

You can’t help but wonder.  

Bad landlords are not the type to rush over to City Hall to request code inspections, and they will flourish in a laissez-faire environment.

The city is taking steps to fix the Codes Department. 

Among other things, It has hired Chris Lunn as chief building inspector and appointed assistant police chief Jack Falvo as chief of the buildings department. 

In an op-ed printed in the Gazette, Mayor Gary McCarthy and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Eidens described inspecting “all multiple dwellings for code and life-safety compliance” as a priority that would be completed within several weeks. 

Which is all well and good, and I hope we see the long-term improvements Eidens and McCarthy claim these improvements will provide.

What’s unfortunate is that it took the deaths of four people to expose the dysfunction in the Codes Department and bring about a much-needed change. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at


Categories: Opinion, Schenectady County

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