Editorial: Nothenberg report held up to avoid embarrassing Mayor

by on July 30, 2004

Rudy Nothenberg’s report on DBI was kept under wraps for three weeks pending Board of Supervisors approval of the Mayor’s $6.5 million cut in the agency’s funding. It turns out that Nothenberg strongly opposed these cuts. The report’s delayed issuance, and its distribution to the San Francisco Chronicle prior to being made available to the Department, further confirms the Mayor’s politicization of the review process.

For the past three weeks, the Building Inspection Commission has tried in vain to get a copy of Rudy Nothenberg’s report on the Department of Building Inspection. Yesterday, the Mayor’s Office gave a copy to the San Francisco Chronicle, which got it before either the staff or Commission overseeing the agency.

Nothenberg’s report makes a series of recommendations, and is as good as could be expected from a person who felt then, and now, that the creation of a Building Department and Commission in 1994 was a colossal mistake.

Nothenberg recommended to the Mayor’s Office that “it should make every effort to preserve the Department’s funds so that they may be invested in improved services.Once allocated to support the City’s general fund activities, the funds are gone and will not be easily or soon be replaceable.”

Mayor Newsom did exactly the opposite of what Nothenberg recommended. The Mayor’s Office also denied the Board of Supervisors the opportunity to review Nothenberg’s recommendation before voting to dramatically cut the DBI budget.

There is little in the report that will stir controversy.

Nothenberg calls on the Mayor to place a charter amendment on the ballot to eliminate the current requirement that six of the seven Commissioners have experience in fields relevant to DBI’s work. He provides no factual basis for this change, and voters are unlikely to support a measure that takes qualified people with technical expertise off the Commission.

Nothenberg also wants a charter amendment to give the Mayor more power over the appointment of the DBI Director. But the Mayor already gets a majority of Commission appointments, and the Commission picks the Director.

The report spends considerable time arguing that the DBI Commission should adopt a Code of Ethics. The commissioners are currently governed by citywide ethics laws. If Nothenberg believes additional protections are needed, the Commission would certainly adopt them.

The report gets some critical issues simply wrong. For example, Nothenberg justly criticizes the lack of exams and lists for key inspector positions, but fails to blame the true culprit-the Civil Service Commission. Civil Service has delayed hiring in a number of city departments, and the Mayor should solve this problem.

In the reports funniest line, Nothenberg claims that “for the organization to excel, management must dispel the pervasive aura of defensiveness that to this observer characterizes the leadership of the organization.”

Defensiveness? That would be the case if DBI was responding to imagined slights or attacks.

But DBI’s leadership has real enemies.

First, it confronts a Mayor who has unceasingly criticized the Department and who just took $6.5 million from the agency’s coffers.

Second, DBI must deal with ongoing hostile coverage from the San Francisco Chronicle. The torrent of negative articles on DBI began when the Commission was established in 1995 and has never stopped.

For all of the problems over the past decade with the city’s Housing Authority and Police Department, neither agency has been subjected to anywhere near the volume of baseless, unfair stories that the Chronicle has targeted against DBI.

The Chronicle will apparently never forgive the creators of the Commission from taking away downtown’s control of the agency.

It was no accident that the Mayor’s Office gave Nothenberg’s report to the Chronicle before allowing it to be read and reviewed by DBI staff or the Building Inspection Commission. Newsom knows that whenever he wants to take a stab at DBI, the Chronicle will give him the space.

Let’s hope that Nothenberg’s call for a more “open and collegial atmosphere” at DBI is heard by both the Mayor’s Office and the Hearst Corporation.


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