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.”
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.”
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.
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?”