(Editor's Note: In early July, the Alameda County Grand Jury issued a report blasting the city's Building Services division. The report
was highly critical of a number of Building Services practices,
including imposing excessive fines, allowing inspectors to intimidate
and threaten property owners and the department’s frequent use of
prospective liens - an aggressive and punishing code enforcement
The city's embattled Building Services division has begun revamping the role of its inspectors.
In a recently-issued, five-page report, the division spells out in more detail the ongoing reform measures being put in place for Oakland inspectors.
Inspectors played a heavy role in a July Alameda County Grand Jury report that blasted the division's actions on a number of fronts. The report was highly critical of a number of Building Services practices, including imposing excessive fines.
But it was the action of the city's inspectors that garnered the harshest words in the report. According to the grand jury, inspectors dealt with property owners in “an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation.” Property owners said aggressive enforcement action resulted in high fines or homes lost to demolition because homeowners were unable to appeal actions made by Building Services.
The new Building Services reforms impact both the code enforcement inspectors along with permit inspectors.
According to city officials, the ongoing changes emphasize project coordination along with a greater prioritization of service to the public.
As part of the reform process, in the area of permit issuance, Building Services has divided its inspectors into core groups that will solely focus on either commercial or residential. In the area of infrastructure permits, construction inspectors were paired with "Plan Check and Project Implementation" for better coordination and feedback. Additional reform measures underway include supplemental training measures for inspectors and developing a "how to build" pamphlet outlining city guidelines.
Consistency among inspectors is critical, said Councilwoman Jane Brunner, who called for the report from Building Services.
"We need to come up with consistency," Brunner told Building Services Director Ray Derania at a recent committee meeting. "What's happening out in the real world, with real homes and real businesses, is that your inspectors have different opinions that is costing (people) thousands of dollars."
Property owners urged any changes regarding city inspectors should be closely tied to the recommendations called for in the Alameda County Grand Jury report.
"In light of the problems Oakland homeowners have complained about regarding Building Services, and the Grand Jury has now confirmed, it may be that rearranging Building Services inspectors ... is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," property owner Andrew Vincent said.
This is just one of a number of reform reports expected for Building Services. City Administrator Deanna Santana said her office is currently conducting a management review, "from A to Z." Other reform measures underway include improving customer service in Building Services, developing greater transparency and developing a centralized data management system that is accessible to the public.
In addition, the division will soon see additional reform actions it must comply with coming from the City Council. Last week, Council voted to directed city staff to put together a motion that would permanently ban perspective liens, create a public Building Services task force and create an approval process for home demolitions, among other measures.
The full City Council is expected to discuss the recent Building Services report at its regular meeting next week.
This article is part of 'Oakland Inside,' a continuing investigative news series that examines the inner workings of Oakland City Hall and explores accountability issues around CEDA Building Services. This coverage was made possible by a grant from The Fund for Investigative Journalism. Read all stories in this series.