Newsom Promotes Another Phony “Clean-up” of DBI

by Randy Shaw on February 7, 2005


Despite constant attacks on the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) since taking office, Mayor Newsom has not uncovered a single example of favoritism or official corruption. But a lack of evidence or facts has not stopped Newsom from relentlessly promoting—with the Chronicle’s aid— the falsehood that DBI must be “cleaned up.” Newsom has now appointed two new DBI Commissioners and is trying to sell it as part of his “clean up” campaign. But one of the Commissioners replaced is a strong Newsom ally and campaign contributor, and served as President of the Building Commission since Newsom’s election. Why did Newsom’s “clean up” require the removal of a close political ally from Commission leadership, and what is the Mayor’s true agenda?

During his tenure on the Board of Supervisors from 1996-2003, Gavin Newsom never had a single negative word to say about the DBI. But since Residential Builders head Joe O’Donoghue and permit expediter Walter Wong refused Newsom’s request that they endorse him for Mayor, and then backed Matt Gonzalez in the runoff, Newsom has been unrelenting in his attacks on “favoritism” and “corruption” at DBI.

Newsom’s political attack on the DBI began soon after he took office, when he appointed Rudy Nothenberg to investigate the Department. Newsom is so uninformed about San Francisco history that he was apparently unaware that it was under Nothenberg’s “leadership” of the former Bureau of Building Inspection that tenants lived without heat, illegal hotel conversions went rampant, and the agency was virtually broke.

The voters ousted Nothenberg from control of the Bureau in the November 1994 election. His autocratic control was replaced by a public Commission that would prevent the type of favoritism that Nothenberg and his allies freely gave to downtown businesses and corporate insiders.

Since taking office Newsom has publicly complained about his lack of control over the DBI. But he inherited a DBI Commission President, Rodrigo Santos, who was a close political ally and who regularly meets with the mayor to discuss department business.

One would think that Newsom’s alliance with Santos would give him all the control over DBI he would need to root out the “favoritism” he believes is rampant. But Newsom has now replaced Santos on the Commission, and wants San Franciscans to believe that removal of one of his close political allies is a necessary step toward cleaning-up the DBI.

Newsom also replaced Bobbie Sue Hood, who served as the architect on the Commission with great distinction since 1995. The Mayor should apologize to Hood for suggesting that her removal was necessary to end favoritism at the DBI.

The Mayor has made it clear for some time that he wants to pick a new Director of Building Inspection even though he lacks this authority under the city charter. The current Director, Frank Chiu, has been using up vacation time for months and Deputy Director Jim Hutchinson has been serving as Acting Director in his absence.

Since Hutchinson assumed this position, there has not been a single member of the public who has come to a Commission meeting to complain about the Acting Director’s performance. To the contrary, even groups like the BOMA that are closely aligned with the Mayor have publicly praised DBI’s performance under Hutchinson’s leadership.

But Newsom wants Hutchinson gone because he sees him as “Joe’s guy.” He has this view even though Hutchinson was the union leader of the Building Inspectors before O’Dongohue arrived on the scene, and has the reputation throughout DBI as being his own man.

The Hearst Corporation that owns the Chronicle has been attacking the DBI since its creation, and did everything in its power to defeat the 1994 ballot measure that removed Nothenberg’s control. Newsom and the Chronicle share an anti- DBI agenda, and neither will stop their attacks until Hutchinson is removed and a Director of their choosing installed.

Once that occurs, both will gleefully claim “Mission Accomplished.” The Chronicle will praise Newsom for ending favoritism at DBI, boost his reformer credentials, and pat themselves on the back for their role in “cleaning up” a city agency.

Thus does the Chronicle cloak Newsom’s settling of political scores as a victory for good government