It's not every day that members of a city department send a letter to the mayor stating, in essence, "Investigate us. Audit us. We're doing a horrible job!" And yet, last month, that's just what a cadre of Department of Building Inspection employees did.
The letter was written anonymously, supposedly to avoid retribution from DBI director Isam Hasenin — who staffers claim is a vindictive autocrat responsible for decreased productivity, plummeting revenue, and potentially unsafe conditions down the road.
"The public safety of San Francisco is at risk if complex buildings aren't built according to codes just because the plan checker is too frightened to make a decision that will bring him to the Director's attention," the letter reads. "Plan check engineers are afraid they will be fired unless they keep up with unreasonable turnaround times and sign off on plans that ... do not comply with code."
A plan checker told SF Weekly that unwieldy turnarounds are indeed a problem: If a project turns out to be more difficult than expected, there's no recourse. And one veteran DBI employee we spoke to quickly agreed that terrified workers are doing shoddy work rather than attract attention. Hasenin "is very intimidating," the employee said. "He threatens to fire people — a lot.
"I'm being as vague as possible to keep this from coming back to me," the employee continued. "He has a way of ferreting out anonymous sources."
Speaking through DBI communications director Bill Strawn, Hasenin, who was hired nine months ago, said the department supports him: "While I appreciate that change can be difficult for some people ... I've maintained from the time of my arrival an open-door policy. I encourage staff to come and talk to me."
Counters one longtime staffer, "Yes, his door is open — but you go in and you're being grilled for half an hour. He wants to start talking about other employees. He's looking for you to snitch off somebody."
To be fair, another veteran DBI employee chalked up the grumbling in the halls to "civil servants who could only be terminated if they shot somebody. Tell them to stop whining and do their jobs!"
Debra Walker, the president of the Building Inspection Commission, which oversees the department, thinks the truth may lie in between. "Much-needed reforms" may have shaken up its old guard, she says — and yet she'd like to examine the letter's allegations prior to the department's yearly evaluation in March.
If the letter-writers hope to sully Hasenin in the mayor's eyes, however, they're likely sunk. In Gavin Newsom's inaugural speech last week, he promised a vast overhaul and streamlining of the permitting process — a pet project of Hasenin's. Continued Newsom, "We've reformed that old bastion of the special interests, the Department of Building Inspection, so now it works for all of us."
It's a grandiose claim, but it does invite the question: What is the DBI the bastion of now?