City leaders are putting the squeeze on Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards after a high-profile spat with the Department of Building Inspection.
Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee tells me he’s going to call Richards in for a one-on-one meeting to discuss Richards’ future on the Planning Commission, to gauge if Richards should voluntarily step down due to any appearance of a conflict of interest.
“It’s about being effective, and I do have questions about that,” Yee said.
While Yee said he was being careful “not to be accusatory,” he worried, “If you have this perception, can you be effective?”
It’s a fair question. The Department of Building Inspection historically has worked closely with the planning commission on building approvals. Richards works directly with DBI staff all the time.
He also failed to report four buyouts of tenants of his to the Rent Board, which Richards claimed was an oversight that was quickly corrected.
Those buyouts, one for $25,000, two for $75,000 and one for $175,000, were available in public records I obtained from the Rent Board this month.
Richards had nine permits revoked in October on a house in the Mission District he initially purchased with an LLC for $2.7 million and planned to sell for $7.5 million. The Department of Building Inspection dinged him for allegedly performing work on the house that exceeded permits he had obtained.
That led Richards to take up arms against the department.
He claimed they conspired to target him in retaliation for his past actions as a planning commissioner. During one contentious hearing, Richards said “fuck yeah” he would sue DBI, and called it a “cancer on this city,” according to Mission Local, which has cataloged the back and forth between Richards and DBI extensively.
People I’ve spoken to seem mixed on Richards’ culpability.
Randy Shaw, a long-time City Hall insider who authored the 1994 ballot measure that created DBI, called for Richards’ removal in his blog, Beyond Chron, calling Richards’ home purchase landlord speculation. (Richards told me he would explore suing Shaw for libel.)
And Laura Foote, the prominent head of YIMBY Action in San Francisco, told me in a statement that Richards clearly violated his tenants’ rights.
“It’s literally unbelievable that a sitting commissioner and supposed tenants’ rights ally would buy a Victorian in the Mission, get the existing tenants out, and attempt to flip it for millions in profit while simply ‘forgetting’ to file buyouts with the rent board,” Foote said. “It’s unbelievable in that I do not believe that he forgot.”
I should add here that I did attempt to get in touch with the tenants, but did not get calls returned before press time. The much-esteemed Joe Eskenazi of Mission Local said he spoke to at least one former tenant, and confirmed that they wished to be bought out.
So was he flipping the house? Richards pushed back on that claim.
“House flipping to me is, buying a place, putting an Ikea kitchen and bathroom in, and selling it at a ridiculous profit,” Richards told me. “This isn’t house flipping. This is improving the housing stock.”
He’s seismically retrofitting the home, installing new plumbing, and solving various safety issues. Richards and his business partner were considering renting it but …
“With the amount of money I put into it I would be dead before I saw a profit,” he said. “Joe, come on, I need to get my money back. We need to get our money back.”
In the meantime, Richards may end up having to recuse himself from a planning commission vote on Thursday regarding a property on 18th Street. That’s the project Richards commented on previously that he said spurred the alleged retribution by DBI.
“I’m conferring with the city attorney and with my own attorney whether I need to recuse myself,” Richards told me,Tuesday. “That’s a decision I’m going to make tomorrow.”
As for DBI, department spokesperson Bill Strawn said staff are taking the fracas in stride.
“They don’t spend a lot of time worrying about someone emotionally getting over the top,” Strawn said.
Although Richards may end up resolving the complaints about his property, the political repercussions of his actions may ripple out for weeks to come.
To wit: All of this consternation puts Yee, the board president, in a tough spot.
You see, while most sitting city commissioners can only be removed by Mayor London Breed, in the case of planning commissioners who are appointed by the Board of Supervisors — as Richards was in 2014 — only the board president can remove him.
“I haven’t concluded anything yet,” Yee clarified, but he is concerned that even if the assertions about DBI were correct, waging war with another city department, on behalf of a sitting city commissioner, may give the public the perception that Richards can’t play fair.
Yee’s options are limited. Under the city charter, the Board of Supervisors can only remove a planning commissioner for “conviction of a felony crime involving moral turpitude,” official misconduct, or for conduct “that falls below the standard of decency, good faith and right action impliedly required of all public officers and including any violation of a specific conflict of interest or government ethics law,” the charter reads.
While Richards and DBI going throat-to-throat certainly doesn’t look good, and sure does make a lot of people squirm, it also isn’t clear he’s met those standards for removal.
Yee may have his hands tied by the word of law, but he’s still the president of the Board of Supervisors and carries political capital.
So will he use that influence to ask Richards to step down?
“That’s a possibility,” Yee told me.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.