San Francisco’s permit expediters coming out of the shadows

People hired to help clients obtain government permits have long operated in the shadows of San Francisco’s City Hall. But beginning this year, those permit expediters must register with The City and report their compensation and the city officials they contacted.

Since January, when the registration requirement went into effect, 40 permit consultants — including Mayor Ed Lee’s friend and most well-known permit expediter Walter Wong — registered with the Ethics Commission.

The requirement is beginning to reveal the scope of the industry that helps ease the process for obtaining permits for things like development or opening a business.

San Francisco’s permitting process has long been described as labyrinthine, cumbersome and very political when it comes to more significant projects. Most of the permits are issued by the Department of Building Inspection or the Planning Department.

The first-ever disclosure requirements for permit consultant were part of a broader package of transparency requirements introduced by then-Board of Supervisors President David Chiu with City Attorney Dennis Herrera. The law was approved by the board in July 2014 and signed by Mayor Ed Lee.

At the time, Chiu said, “We are not saying that these activities can’t or shouldn’t occur. We are saying that it’s important for the public to know when they occur. That transparency is critical.”

While the backers said the proposal wasn’t aimed at any one individual, it came amid criticism over the lack of transparency involving Mayor Ed Lee and his well-connected political entourage including Wong and former Mayor
Willie Brown, who only recently registered as a lobbyist but has long exerted his influence over City Hall.

Wong is among those who registered, according to the records, noting his employer as Jaidin Consulting Group, LLC. Wong’s filing lists two real estate clients for building permit applications. The clients were identified as Marx Okubo Associates, Inc, from which he received $11,530, and Polaris Pacific, from which he received $15,349.

The registration requirement doesn’t apply to all permit expeditor activity. But one must register if they are providing services for major projects, which are defined by the Ethics Commission as a real estate development project with estimated construction costs exceeding $1 million. Registration is also required for services rendered for a “minor project,” defined as those requiring a permit issued by the Entertainment Commission.

Most of the registrants are employed by one of 11 consulting firms, including Pelosi Law Group, Reuben, Junius and Rose, Hanson Bridgett, Bana Consulting and Farella Braun and Martel.

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