|San Francisco deserves a clean, well-run government whose first, second and third priority is to faithfully serve its residents, businesses and visitors. Achieving this standard at San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection requires more than the empty platitudes too often echoed in the civic dialogue. DBI leadership needs to rebuild the public’s trust in our department, and that starts with me by setting an ethical tone at the top.
As DBI’s interim director, I’m responsible for creating that change, and we’re off to a solid start. The reform measures I’ve put into place at DBI since Mayor Breed asked me to lead the department in March 2020 have already begun to produce results.
I was disappointed to read an Examiner article and editorial critical of my work at DBI. Allegations that an inspector made multiple reports raising concerns about a property are demonstrably untrue as any written report, comment or concern would have been recorded in the property records and publicly available on DBI’s website for anyone to see.
In fact, it is the district supervisor who is responsible for enforcing the building code when he observes a violation; an inspector who witnesses a violation and doesn’t act is not doing his job. I’ve always done my work with the utmost integrity and am so confident of my work that I asked the City Attorney’s Office to investigate the allegations made against me.
Much has been written in these pages about an unscrupulous band of former city employees, including DBI’s former director, Tom Hui, who was one of several people who enriched themselves by taking advantage of their public sector position. As a longtime DBI building inspector, I was one of many dedicated city employees who felt betrayed by their actions because I believe in public service and good government. I witnessed good, ethical people be shunted to the sidelines for trying to do their jobs with integrity.
While it bothered me greatly to see others violate the public trust, I never wavered from my belief in the critical importance of DBI’s role in enforcing the building codes and making sure San Francisco is built safely. As a former carpenter, I know that bad work won’t stand forever — it eventually craters in on itself.
So I followed the rules and remained true to the building codes and the oath I made to enforce them. I also took copious notes on what I saw, kept records on anything out-of-the-ordinary and directed my team to always “follow the book.”
When the City Attorney began investigating DBI and the Controller’s Office performed a public integrity assessment of DBI’s operations this year, I shared what I knew, offered what documents I had and helped map out a set of reforms to improve the department. That is how I kept the faith and remained true to my ethics.
It starts with my north star — am I doing the right thing? As long as the answer is yes, then I know I’m on the proper path. In my life, I have never had an issue prioritizing my ethics over other considerations and have always felt empowered by those values. Today, I’m working with DBI’s managers and supervisors on creative ways to infuse this “always do the right thing” perspective into our organizational culture.
Six months ago, after a year focused on keeping The City building during COVID, I initiated a series of reforms to change the way DBI does business and reverse the damage caused by the past leaders.
During my tenure, a string of deputies and managers left the department, and I’ve had the opportunity to recruit and promote promising new leaders who share my vision for improving our operations and restoring public trust. We developed a new strategic plan to guide the organization for the next five years.
I hired a new deputy director for our permit division, Neville Pereira, who is both an engineer and an expert at developing policies, procedures and staffing systems to enhance oversight while improving customer service. Already, we’ve launched a digital permitting system, expanded it to all large projects and, with our partners in the City and County of San Francisco Permit Center, implemented an online wait system to ensure fairness and improve our customers’ experience.
As a result, we’re doing more in less time. From July to September, DBI issued 62% of all over-the-counter permits within two days, a 37% increase compared to the same period last year. A year ago, we had a backlog of 3,000 permit applications; my team was able to reduce that backlog to approximately 100 today. We have a plan to eliminate it fully within the next six months.
DBI has recommitted to providing the best customer service possible. We’re rebuilding our website to provide greater clarity and direction to the public, offering up-to-date checklists and instructions and becoming more accessible to persons with disabilities. We now host a popular quarterly public advisory forum to solicit feedback and conduct well-attended online trainings for the public.
Our inspections teams have also doubled down on customer service by documenting more inspection observations from the field, increasing communication with owners and contractors and auditing the inspection patterns of senior inspectors to identify any potentially troubling behavior.
Perhaps most important, we recognize that it’s not enough to simply do better. We also have to make sure that work done in the past met the standards set forth by the San Francisco building codes. So we have established a team of seasoned inspectors to conduct an ongoing quality control audit of projects or properties that merit additional review. These investigators are using permit applications, building plans, inspection documentation and site visits to confirm the projects were designed to code, properly inspected and built to plan.
Changing DBI’s culture and improving operations won’t be simple or quick. The right path rarely runs along an easy street. But I’m committed to the hard work of getting this department back on track and providing the level of service this great city and our residents deserve.
Patrick O’Riordan is the interim director of the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection, a certified building official and a former carpenter.