The San Francisco Board of Supervisors did some grilling of the acting head of the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) on Tuesday, and Mayor London Breed followed up on Monday with her own executive order demanding changes to the department and its permit tracking system.
DBI has figured significantly in the sprawling corruption scandal that fanned out from former Department of Public Works director Mohammed Nuru over the last 19 months. And following last year's resignation of its director Tom Hui amid corruption allegations relating to permits and noted permit "expeditor" Walter Wong, we learned this year of more allegations against former senior inspector in the department Bernard Curran.
During Monday's Board of Supervisors hearing, called by Supervisor Hillary Ronen, the supes grilled Acting Department of Building Inspection Director Patrick O’Riordan about the permits for 2867-2899 San Bruno Avenue — a building that came to light in a Mission Local investigation a couple months back where a developer illegally built 29 units into a building that had only been approved for 10. O'Riordan wasn't in charge when all this went down, but Curran was the inspector on the job, and the developer allegedly loaned Curran $180,000, which went unreported and led to Curran's resignation.
As the Chronicle reported this week, Curran didn't stick to a specific jurisdiction in the city, and managed to pop up as the inspector on properties all over town, signing off on as many as 300 inspections each year, when other inspectors only did 25 or 30.
As Supervisor Myrna Melgar put it, "Those extra 270 inspections were done for a reason. I don’t think he went out there and did them for the heck of it."
Supervisors Ronen and Aaron Peskin called out the fact that penalties, including the one who built the San Bruno Avenue building, are just slaps on the wrist — the developer there was fined $1.2 million by the city attorney. Peskin noted that the worst case for building inspectors was they lost their jobs with "fat pensions" intact — and as SFist noted in July, both Nuru and Hui are still collecting their pensions.
Mayor Breed's executive order came in response to a controller's report, issued Thursday, which audited the permitting and inspections process related to two buildings: 555 Fulton Street and 2867-2899 San Bruno Avenue. As the SF Business Times reports, the city controller found that DBI lacked sufficient safeguards against "red flag" activities like inspecting properties outside one inspector's usual geographic boundaries. And there was no system for tracking after-the-fact changes to inspection reports.
As Breed said in a statement, the report "describes a culture that allowed for continued wrongdoing set by a ‘tone at the top’ that failed to institute ethical leadership and guidelines."
When "a city department relies on an opaque, antiquated, overly-bureaucratic system," she said, "it also creates an environment that allows corruption to flourish."
"The people of San Francisco deserve better,” she added.
The executive order calls for DBI staff to undergo new training, and for technical changes to the department's permit tracking system, which has been called antiquated by many. The order also calls for the creation of a new compliance team within the department to flag other areas where fraud may run rampant.
O'Riordan issued a statement in response to the controller's report, saying he welcomed the scrutiny.
"I’m outraged about what happened in the past at DBI and the way former leaders undermined the fine work our staff does every day and violated the public’s trust," O'Riordan said. "It’s not right and I’m committed to getting us back on track."
Photo: Gordon Mak