In September, Mission Local reported on the strange and terrible saga of Bob Mason’s garden wall — which he feared might topple upon his 74-year-old wife. The wall had been imperiled by unwarranted construction on the neighboring lot overseen by notorious permit expediter and structural engineer Rodrigo Santos.
Despite both federal and city charges alleging fraud — and, notably, serial theft from his clientele — Santos remains a busy man with no shortage of clientele. He is purportedly pulling permits regularly at the Department of Building Inspection — a difficult task for the unconnected — and working on a slew of projects across the city.
(He is also accused of the seventh-grade-caliber crime of altering a check, made out to “DBI,” to read “RoDBIgo Santos” — and depositing it.)
Partially inspired by that article, Supervisor Hillary Ronen crafted legislation she will introduce today, with its stated goal “to protect the public and end flagrant disregard for city law and abuse of the city’s permitting system.”
“There are people out there — consultants or expediters or developers — who have blatantly flouted our DBI laws, and know they’re doing it, and have gotten away with it for years and have come back and done the same thing over and over,” Ronen explains.
“Oftentimes, inspectors and people at the front desk handling the over-the-counter permits know they are dealing with people who have had many violations in the past, but they have to work with them and act as if they are anybody else.”
Ronen’s legislation would take aim at this in several ways. Among them:
— It would require that violations such as misrepresentation of actual conditions, hazardous work beyond scope, and demolition without permit be recorded and tracked, and that any parties or projects associated with three such violations in an 18-month period be placed on a publicly accessible list;
— It would require DBI to report bad actors to state licensing bodies;
— It would designate senior DBI staff to head out into the field and perform inspections and respond to complaints.
Mission Local shared a preliminary synopsis of the legislation with multiple longtime DBI sources and asked their thoughts about its prospects of altering the trajectory of a department defined by sclerosis, inefficiency, cronyism and corruption.
They did see some positives. Putting senior inspectors out of the office and onto the ground was viewed as a big deal — this remedies the elemental problem of plans being double- and triple-checked on paper only to allow scofflaws to build as they please out in the field.
“This is 100 percent a good idea,” said one longtime inspector. Added another, “This is really well put-together on the front end. But, on the back end, where does it take us? We can create all this documentation and say all these things — but DBI will not enforce it if it is not forced to. Period.”
Unwanted or unpopular mandates are not routinely carried out at DBI, said longtime department employees — and mandating the department follow rules it should’ve been following intuitively does not figure to be popular.
Take the requirement that DBI officials report bad actors to state licencing bodies. In point of fact, the department’s Administrative Bulletin 40, setting parameters for design professionals and contractors to be referred to state bodies for possible discipline, has been on the books since 2002.
It has rarely, if ever, been utilized.
Ronen’s legislation would, in effect, mandate DBI officials make the calls they’ve studiously avoided making for the past 19 years. Barring concrete repercussions for shirking the rules, DBI insiders were not convinced this would be a smooth and inevitable outcome.
What’s more, DBI insiders said that the department’s notably archaic technology — it spent millions of dollars and wasted many years to not implement a modern permit-tracking system — leaves it unable to monitor jobs or individuals in the manner the legislation would require.
And, as far as putting Santos and other scofflaws on a list, DBI officials noted that he’s already on their lists — yet he remains busy and the department keeps issuing him permits. Sans the revocation of his state-issued engineering license, DBI officials told us they had no choice but to do so. As noted above, however, it appears Santos was never reported to state bodies via AB40, despite myriad opportunities to do so (not least of which was the filing of federal charges).
As such, building inspectors contacted by Mission Local made a jarring and unusual request: Take these matters out of our control. Get the City Attorney involved.
“We need to be scrutinized by somebody else,” said one. Instead of penalizing the Santoses of the world, DBI empowers them. “This needs to be taken out of our hands.”
Ronen, for her part, acknowledged that there was no single silver bullet to address DBI’s myriad woes. But she was optimistic that this legislative effort would gain traction where others have failed to.
“A lot of the departments where the FBI has come in and indicted people,” she says, “will be facing a level of scrutiny that is greater than it was prior.”