Building Inspection’s new broom

The Department of Building Inspection has long been one of San Francisco’s most troubled agencies. It was investigated by the FBI and blasted by the grand jury and City Controller’s Office as unresponsive, inconsistent, susceptible to cronyism and political pressure, and ingeneral a hotbed of improper favoritism.

Mayor Gavin Newsom made a 2003 campaign promise to reform the department. He named Amy Lee as acting director; but it was not until March 2007 that The City finally found a permanent director with a track record of implementing meaningful restructuring.

Isam Hasenin, 48, arrived from San Diego, where he was credited with streamlining a cumbersome permit process during his five years as chief building officer. In 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him vice chairman of the California Building Standards Commission, which oversees building code changes statewide.

During his confirmation hearing, Hasenin pledged that the Department of Building Inspection would become fair, transparent, straightforward and ethical for all clients. He said he would spend his first months “aggressively examining the nuts and bolts” of the department and return to the Building Inspection Commission with specific “action steps” for “a new day at DBI.”

Last week, Hasenin fulfilled that timetable, bringing the commission more than 50 recommendations comprising a viable approach for fixing the department. Most striking about the new director’s program is that many of his action steps are so fundamental it becomes almost startling to realize they haven’t already been done here.

Only a deeply flawed bureaucracy with pervasive mistrust of change could for so long have avoided instituting customer services as basic as these: service-by-appointment reservations; staff commitments to specific deadlines that eliminate unpredictable delays; guaranteed second opinion service offering rapid hearings with senior officials on request; comprehensive universal permit application form to end duplication and overlapping.

In addition, Hasenin presented plans for a greatly expanded one-stop customer service center and an enhanced over-the-counter service where rotating teams could approve permits on smaller projects within one hour. There will also be a “Customers’ Bill of Rights” giving the public clear, realistic and predictable expectations about their permit-application process.

The Examiner applauds these long-needed initiatives finally being launched under the impressive new leadership of Isam Hasenin. It is crucial to the future of San Francisco that the Department of Building Inspection functions with efficiency and fairness for city residents trying to remodel their homes, and for contractors and builders trying to construct projects adding to The City’s livability.

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