With the cloud of a recall vote hanging over the head of Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) and the overturning on Friday last week of the first rulings on liability for the 2014 gas explosions in the city, the questions of whether mayors have time for distractions beyond the direct remit of their office and of who is accountable for public safety disasters has come under public scrutiny.
On Sunday, a fire broke out at a Cashbox Partyworld KTV outlet on Taipei’s Linsen N Road, leaving five dead and more than 40 injured, including one in critical condition. It should never have happened.
An investigation has given rise to questions such as why the sprinkler system was disabled on the B1, fourth, fifth and eighth floors of the building, and how a fatal fire could break out at an establishment that had only recently passed one of its regular fire safety inspections.
At the time of the fire, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) was in southern Taiwan, dealing with Taiwan People’s Party business.
The question is not why he was away at the time of the fire: His presence would not have prevented it. The question is whether his duties as chairman of a political party are distracting him too much from his mayoral duties.
One of Ko’s highlighted moves early on in his first term was taking on Taipei Dome contractor Farglory Group over concerns that unauthorized changes to the approved blueprints for the project might cause major public safety problems.
Yesterday, the heat was on him, as Ko went to Taipei City Hall to face questions over fire safety inspections.
To his credit, he did not — on this occasion — shy away from accepting responsibility. Asked whether he would apologize to Taipei residents, who trusted his administration to ensure their safety, he said that not only was he willing to apologize, but that he felt ashamed.
He also acknowledged serious legal loopholes in the inspection system and promised that he would address them.
Ko faced a barrage of questions about how it could be that, despite Cashbox passing 20 fire safety inspections in the past two years, four of its six branches in the city failed spot checks following Sunday’s fire and what this says about the effectiveness of the regular inspections.
He was asked to clarify exactly why inspectors had not demanded to see updated fire prevention and emergency evacuation plans reflecting structural changes after a fire safety inspection on March 30 at the Linsen branch found that a temporary wooden wall had been erected on B1. He was also pressed on why inspectors from the Taipei City Building Administration Office on Wednesday last week failed to challenge management about a false decorative wall installed on the first floor.
On this occasion, it is right that the buck stops with Ko. Questions over whether he should be dividing his time between his mayoral duties and other political responsibilities are legitimate.
However, fire safety hazards, lax regulations and loosely enforced inspections are certainly not the preserve of Taipei: The fire is only the latest example of avoidable disasters that have happened nationwide.
The responsibility of ensuring that building safety regulations are observed, whether they be entertainment venues or commercial and residential blocks, also lies with companies, building management and the people in them.
A city government is responsible for carrying out inspections. That does not mean people or businesses are free to erect false walls or make structural changes without amending fire safety plans, turn off sprinkler systems or leave obstructions in stairwells.
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