Consolidating power

Pub date January 9, 2008


A proposal to consolidate some of the permitting functions of 10 city departments into one is currently floating through Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration as a result of his call to department heads for bold initiatives. It was developed by a department head who is receiving harsh criticism from his staff.

Isam Hasenin, the director of the Department of Building Inspection, originally unveiled the idea in a Dec. 3, 2007, memo presented to the mayor that calls for a shift into Hasenin’s department of the permitting currently reviewed by the Fire Department, the Planning Department, the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping, the Public Utilities Commission, the Redevelopment Agency, the Mayor’s Office on Disability, the Port, the Airport, the Bureau of Urban Forestry, and the Municipal Transportation Agency.

The reason offered for such massive consolidation is customer service. "A single city-wide permitting department will be better equipped to manage the needs of our citizens and deliver a more efficient, reliable, consistent and timely service with a focus on excellent customer service," the memo reads.

Hasenin told us the idea was in response to a solicitation from Newsom. "The genesis of this idea came about as a general commitment from the Mayor’s Office to improve the city … to reinvigorate and streamline the processes of the city," he said.

It follows policy pledges made by the mayor since his first run for office. In campaign literature from 2003, Newsom wrote that his economic plan would "direct city agencies to streamline regulations and meet accelerated schedules for approving worthy new public and private projects, without compromising standards."

More recently, Newsom addressed a Dec. 19, 2007, Building Inspection Commission meeting at which this memo came up. "Systemically, the organization of things are such that institutionally they can’t change to the degree that we’d like to see them change," Newsom said. "So we have to break the institutions … in order to make the kinds of changes all of us in the city expect."

Several department spokespeople contacted by the Guardian had only heard vague suggestions about consolidation. Hasenin stressed that the proposal was still in an early, conceptual stage and that discussions among staff and all of the relevant stakeholders had yet to occur.

One department that hasn’t held back criticism of the proposal is the San Francisco Fire Department. "The administration, the Fire Commission, and Fire Fighters Local 798 are all aligned. We’d be concerned about any changes," department chief Joanne Hayes-White told us.

She first learned of the plan at an impromptu Dec. 6, 2007, meeting with the mayor at which, she says, she outlined several immediate concerns with the idea, including the fact that it may not be legal. She reported this to the Fire Commission at a Dec. 13, 2007, meeting: "There is specific language in the state’s Fire Code that the authority for these types of inspections rests with the Fire Department and the fire chief or the fire marshal."

Hayes-White also said, "I think it is important also — which we pointed out to the mayor — that there be appropriate checks and balances … and that there is no rubber-stamping of things." The Fire Commission echoed her sentiments and sent a letter to the mayor on Dec. 19.

Newsom’s Sept. 10, 2007, call for his senior staff to offer letters of resignation has had a chilling effect on his remaining administration, with some heads contacted by the Guardian reluctant to speak out against a policy that’s perceived to be coming from him. In some ways, that’s given the mayor even more power to advance potentially controversial ideas. Among those recently replaced by Newsom are the heads of the Planning Department, the Department of Public Works (which oversees the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping), the SFPUC, and the Redevelopment Agency.

"There’s an opportunity right now because of all these resignations to manipulate policy," said Debra Walker, president of the BIC. She stressed that she wasn’t sure whether that was an intention of this proposal, but she was unaware of the memo until concerned members of the Fire Department brought it up at the Dec. 19 meeting of the BIC. She said her department has since received a copy but has yet to discuss its implications as a commission.

Hasenin is a relatively new employee who joined the city about nine months ago from a previous post in San Diego. His leadership has already garnered a lengthy anonymous letter addressed to Newsom from a contingent of DBI staff outlining a raft of concerns about their new leader, including specifics like "Plan check engineers are afraid they will be fired unless they keep up with unreasonable turn around times and sign off on plans that are not ready for issuance because they do not comply with code."