Photo by Ana Aguilar

A quartet of supervisors today introduced a charter amendment that could lead to voters fundamentally remaking — or, perhaps more accurately, unmaking — the oversight commission for the scandal-plagued Department of Building Inspection. 

Today’s amendment is sponsored by Supervisor Myrna Melgar, herself a former member of the Building Inspection Commission, as well as Aaron Peskin, Hillary Ronen and Rafael Mandelman (who had a cup of coffee on the BIC himself a decade ago). 

If their legislation is successful, voters in June, 2022, would fundamentally alter who serves on that commission and how they get there. Since its inception under Proposition G in 1994, the Building Inspection Commission has had seats designated for members of the professions regulated by the Department of Building Inspection, including landlords, architects, engineers and “residential builders.” 

Angus McCarthy, the president of the commission since 2012, has occupied the “residential builder” seat, as did Mel Murphy, who held that position prior to him. 

This setup has led to charges that the Department of Building Inspection is bedeviled by “regulatory capture;” that is, it has been co-opted by the groups it was ostensibly created to oversee. 

“This has been a problem,” says Melgar. “The regulated are being the regulators. There is an expectation that you represent a specific group.” 

“Gone will be the days of behind-closed-door appointments like Mel Murphy and Rodrigo Santos and the crooks that have run that commission.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin

Her amendment would do away with designated seats, instead opening them up to the public at large. And it would also alter the present appointment mechanism, from the mayor appointing four commissioners and the board president three — unilaterally — to the mayor and board president nominating commissioners who would then go through a public confirmation process.

“If the mayor, as Gavin Newsom did, nominated Mel Murphy to the commission, and he had to go through a Board of Supervisors hearing, I guarantee you that not one of the 37 supervisors I’ve served with in 20 years would have voted to confirm him,” said Peskin.  

“Gone will be the days of behind-closed-door appointments like Mel and Rodrigo Santos and the crooks that have run that commission.” 

Finally, rather than the Building Inspection Commission being the sole arbiter of who will lead the department, the charter amendment would have the mayor select the DBI director from candidates forwarded by the commission, which is how the Planning Commission and Police Commission already work. 

“Part of the problem Prop. G created is, nobody has any vested responsibility in the outcomes at DBI,” Peskin said. “Now, the mayor could no longer plead that he or she has no control.” 

Peskin also said he hoped no permanent DBI director would be named prior to the June, 2022, election, a prayer that will likely go unanswered. The Building Inspection Commission appears to be rounding third on that process, with interim director Patrick O’Riordan a contender for the full-time post. 

Both O’Riordan and McCarthy, the president of the body that names the next director, are presently under investigation by the City Attorney. 

Perhaps more significant than any of the above changes, however, this charter amendment would, in part, undo the prior charter amendment Prop. G of 1994, meaning future changes to the Department of Building Inspection could be dictated by the board and mayor without going to the voters. 

In the 1994 voter guide, then-San Francisco Chief Administrative Officer Rudy Nothenberg described Prop. G as “a blatant power grab by certain special-interest groups who want to convince you that they are interested in public service. … PROPOSITION G WILL POLITICIZE BUILDING SAFETY DECISIONS IN SAN FRANCISCO.” 

And that’s what happened. Reached today, he said this amendment could be an improvement — he felt the nomination method was important — but he still has more questions. 

What kind of conflict-of-interest provisions would apply to the commissioners? Where would you find people knowledgeable about building and design and development who aren’t already doing business with the city or frequently interacting with its building department? 

Unlike the present, Nothernberg hoped for provisions forbidding commissioners from interacting with DBI employees other than the director, which critics bemoan is a not-infrequent occurrence among commissioners who are active in the building industry. 

“This thing of having commissioners calling up individual building inspectors is outrageous,” he said. “There have to be considerable barriers between commissioners and day-to-day workers at the department. That needs to stop.” 

Internal DBI critics saw the charter amendment as a positive step: “Can we start sooner?” one asked, half-jokingly. But they were still wary of its unanswered questions. 

“There aren’t any requirements for minimum age; minimum education; and minimum knowledge of buildings, construction, building safety, accessibility, building and housing codes, administration, information technology, etc.,” said one. “How are these people going to be capable of making informed decisions on permit appeals, code requirements, or citizen complaints?” 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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8 Comments

  1. It’s about time. This should have happened years ago. Many thanks Joe for your efforts in getting us this far. And many thanks, too, to Supervisors Melgar, Peskin, Ronen, and Mandelman for sponsoring this proposal.

    There are a few things I would like to add to your assessment:

    The BIC Commissioners should be paid for their time. This is much too demanding a job to be doing it without pay. And who is going to apply for that kind of job, if they aren’t being paid? Most likely, it will be people who see it as a pathway to a better paying position or to elected office, and not ones who really care about improving the Building Dept. What competent and qualified person is going to give up significant amounts of his/her valuable time to serve without pay on a difficult, controversial, and targeted Commission like the BIC?

    As much as possible, the Commission makeup should be taken out of the hands of the politicians and financial beneficiaries and placed in those of dedicated professionals from the design, construction, housing, and code areas. Ideally, the Commissioners should be chosen by a proven and trusted administrator – one who knows the City’s professionals well – someone like Rudy Nothenberg and not the Mayor and Supervisors. Those politicians would still have the right of approval. Surely this is possible in a city like S.F., which has such a high number of educated professionals

    In addition, the Commissioners should have a paid and dedicated staff to help them with difficult issues – not just a clerical staff, but a technical and well-trained staff, like the Board of Supervisors has, and that should be spelled out in the Amendment. As things stand now, Commissioners have to rely on DBI staff, who may or may not tell them what they should hearing. DBI, for its part, has for many years hired its own paid, professional spokespersons (shills) to defend itself to the BIC and the public (Think Christine Gasparac, the current one, et al. and Bill Strawn, the previous one.)

    There should also be a term limit (maybe 6 years?) for Commissioners, the better to prevent any of them from getting too comfortable with DBI staff. Previous Commission Presidents Mel Murphy, Rodrigo Santos, and current President Angus McCarthy are examples of that. What’s good enough for Calif. Assembly members, should be good enough for Commissioners.

    If the Amendment passes, the presiding DBI Director, Deputy Directors, and Assistant Directors at the time should all be required to reapply for their positions and compete with new applicants. The chances are that there are good applicants who didn’t bother to apply during the current search, because their chances looked slim when competing with RBA favorites and longtime accomplices of Tom Hui and Walter Wong. That’s especially true while McCarthy still wields considerable influence at the BIC. (Why hasn’t this multi-millionaire developer, who has many conflicts of interest, been asked to recuse himself during the search for a new Director?)

    Having the Mayor appoint the DBI Director based on recommendations from the Commissioners is not a good solution, but it may be the only viable one. Some believe that Ed Lee was instrumental in making Tom Hui the Director in 2013. What’s going to prevent that from happening again? Supervisor Peskin is right, though, when he says this is the only way to make one person accountable for the choice of Directors. And, if the voters aren’t happy with the Mayor’s choice, they can make it an issue in the next election.

    1. Thank you for the detailed comments. I appreciate how you laid this out and I agree.with your POV.

  2. A lot more is needed. This septic corruption has infected the entire municipal
    S.F. government. This is a remnant of The Burton Machine which took over
    this community with the ascension of figures such as George Moscone, Nancy Walker,
    Willie Brown, and Nancy Pelosi, where accruing power rather than sound governance
    became the goal. The blame reverts right back to the electorate. It will take a generation to rid the infection. Meanwhile, more corruption, more dysfunctionalism.
    Meanwhile, to paraphrase that wise sage Yogi Berra, it’s Abe Ruef Deja Vu inept
    governance all over again.

  3. Be very very careful. The mayor is propped up by some of worst corruption, none of this should go thru her w/o strict oversite, when you can’t dump the current crooks even!

  4. Referring to the epidemic of organized smash & grab retail thefts, Nancy Pelosi said “there’s an attitude of lawlessness in our country that comes from … I don’t know where.” She should look close to home. When a city is run so corruptly as Nancy Pelosi’s is, the disease of corruption seeps down to the rest of us and becomes a model. So now Pelosi is shocked – shocked ! – to find that impoverished youth follow the lead of our officials. And the thieves have the gall to loot HER kinds of stores as well as Walgreen’s! It should be noted that crime didn’t become a problem for SF’s anti-working class leadership until swank shops on Union Square got hit.

  5. I served on the Small Business Commission for 12 years and was never elected president or vice president while the mayor’s appointees served in these positions repeatedly. One commissioner was president for 4 terms and vice president for 5 years. Why ? The mayor’s office openly let the mayoral commissioners to never vote for me because I was appointed by Aaron Peskin. Just completed my last term and have left City Hall because I am so tired of the politics and corruption.

  6. WTF?!!!!!!!!!!!!!! As IF SF really needs another BS “oversight commission”! Wake up! Wipe the slate clean; fire current DBI inspectors and/or TEST them on the current UCC/SF Building Ordinance laws – if they fail – FIRE THEM! Furthermore, if SF government was truly “TRANSPARENT”, we the people – most of whom know how to/have started/run BUSINESSES, would be able to provide more relevant suggestions!

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