On Monday, The Rodbigo Act has its first hearing in committee.
The legislation the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is deliberating today is aimed at undermining rogue builders, and was authored by Supervisor Hillary Ronen — inspired, in part, by this story about her constituent, Bob Mason. A wall in his backyard is now at potential risk of collapse due to months of disruptive and unpermitted construction directed by notorious engineer Rodrigo Santos — who, despite a bevy of local and federal allegations, including fraudulently pocketing his clients’ money and even, yes, altering a check to “DBI” to read “RoDBIgo” — remains a busy man with scads of construction jobs throughout San Francisco.
That Santos remains in demand is an indicator of a broken and twisted system. Ronen would like to fix and straighten it.
We ran a preliminary version of her legislation by a number of longtime sources within the city’s Department of Building Inspection, and they found lots to like. With one major caveat: This legislation, even if it’s good legislation — is legislation.
Legislators legislate. But legislation alone cannot solve this city’s problems — and, for this legislation to succeed, some of this city’s most hidebound and corrupt institutions will have to change their ways and begin doing things that, truth be told, they could have done long ago.
Clearly, they didn’t. But change is not impossible. The ongoing federal corruption probe has not only produced a bevy of charges and arrests, but it may yet instill a Damn, you live like this? change of heart among San Francisco’s sullied institutions.
Well, it could happen.
But, absent a knock on the door from the feds — or fear that one may come — that’s a lot to hope for. And it certainly didn’t happen in the past, when elements of this city’s Kafka-meets-Wild-West land-use system were targeted legislatively.
San Francisco’s scofflaw builders are in the legislative spotlight now. But, seven-odd years back, the city crafted legislation addressing another San Francisco oddity: permit expediters.
This legislation passed in 2014, unanimously. You can read it here. But, after the legislation was written and passed, there was no political will to actually address this problem, much less solve it.
So, instead, we can now recount the events of the last seven years in a series of highly readable federal charging documents.
“Permit consultants,” as they are more gently referred to in the 2014 ordinance, are now required to register with the city. They must file quarterly reports outlining who their clients are, and who in the city they met with.
All for the good. But this hardly begins to address the problematic nature of the system, separate and apart from San Francisco crafting a procedure so onerous that permit expediters exist at all.
Until his arrest by the feds on conspiracy to commit fraud and money-laundering charges in June, Walter Wong was this city’s leviathan of permit expediters. It is hard to overstate the control he held over the Department of Building Inspection’s plan-check and central permitting divisions, which were seeded with his friends and allies, and arguably operated as a department within a department to process his material.
So, it’s interesting to peruse the permit consultant reports mandated quarterly since 2015. Within them, Wong does not disclose a single contact with any officer of the city. Not a one.
If these reports are accurate, the man who purportedly once had his own key to the building department — and who walked into the employees-only area to personally expedite matters with such impunity that the gateway became known as “the Wong Doors ” — didn’t contact any city officials on business for five years.
And this points to a number of troubling possibilities. Building Department sources told me, in fact, Wong stopped dropping by the office years ago, and began having his employees do it for him. And the quarterly permit consultant reports do reflect that.
That’s because Wong’s system was entrenched. The 2014 legislation takes a snapshot of that. But, by the time this legislation was passed, it couldn’t do anything about it. In fact, there has never been an Ethics Commission enforcement action against a permit consultant resulting in any public action. And, unlike lobbyists, permit consultants are not randomly audited.
And that comes back to the larger issue of a lack of political will to take on the entrenched status quo.
Because this was the entrenched status quo: We know because of a 2020 City Attorney investigation that ex-Department of Building Inspection boss Tom Hui essentially outsourced policy approval to Wong in 2013 and fed him sensitive building department information in 2015. In 2011, Hui asked Wong for help landing Hui’s son a city job (which he got). In 2012 Mayor Ed Lee declared Jan. 13 “Walter Wong Day” in San Francisco, in honor of his “good friend.”
That’s a hell of a status quo. And that’s a hell of a set of problems.
But not every problem has a legislative solution.
The legislation being heard today in the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee would do a lot of things most San Franciscans would purport to want.
It would mandate that violations like hazardous work beyond scope or demolition without permit be tracked, and any builder who does this three times in 18 months be placed on a public list. It would mandate the building department to report bad actors to state licensing bodies. And it would require senior inspectors to go out in the field and perform inspections and respond to complaints.
All for the good: But this hardly begins to address the problematic nature of the system. The building department’s outmoded computer programs, for one, may render it challenging to keep track of scofflaw builders and problematic jobs. The department has had the means to report bad actors to state licensing bodies since at least 2002 — and it’s not clear it has ever been done.
And, finally, Ronen’s legislation puts a great deal of power in the hands of the department’s senior inspectors. Will they use it to crack down on wayward builders? Or will they wield it like a cudgel to settle political scores? It all depends on the quality of personnel the department hires and promotes, and what is expected of them by department higher-ups.
Our city’s Department of Building Inspection claims, in the wake of yet another scandal, that it now strives for accountability, efficiency and transparency. May God help them in that endeavor. But this legislation won’t: It will be a tool for good or bad, depending on whose hands it’s in.
Based on how the department uses this legislation, in fact, we can gauge just how accountable, efficient, and transparent things really are. But this legislation, in itself, won’t help the department achieve those goals.
For that, you need more. And always have.
Because not every problem has a legislative solution.