Oakland residents and city council call for reform to building services division
on November 30, 2011
On Tuesday at the Community and Economic Development Committee meeting, Oakland City Council members and speakers from the audience criticized the city administrator’s office for not moving fast enough to fix systematic problems with the city’s much-criticized building services division.
In late June, an Alameda County Grand Jury released a scathing report on the Building Services Division that found numerous problems with the organization, including a lack of process—owners often aren’t notified of possible violations, liens are imposed before there is an opportunity to appeal, and penalties imposed don’t fit the improvements needed, according to the report. “There is a perception by property owners that the fees are simply a way to generate funds for the city without regard for the residents’ due process,” the report said.
The CEDC committee passed a resolution Tuesday to accept a report from the city administrator’s office that included priority improvements for the division. The city administrator’s office was directed to compile the report by the city council at its September 20 meeting.
The September 20 meeting was the first time city council members formally responded to the grand jury report. At that meeting, a long line of residents had shared their horror stories about dealing with the building services division, including one man who complained that his parents were ordered to undergo $181,000 in fixes for a house worth $100,000, and an 86-year-old woman who had her home foreclosed, she said, and bulldozed because of blight.
The report requested by the city council included 16 items, such as: “create an appeals process with a neutral (non-Building Services) hearing officer” and “ban prospective liens and set a policy that liens can only be placed after documented notification and abatement failure.” The report was presented during the committee meeting Tuesday.
Of the 16 items, though, in the report presented by assistant to the city administrator Margaretta Lin, the office has implemented only three—banning prospective liens, requiring approval from the city administrator to perform demolitions, and the improvement of the demolition process. The other items are either still under review or included recomendations. The report also stated that city administrator’s staff will report to the council with an update on the implementation of the new process at a meeting in March, 2012.
But council members and speakers from the audience said the process isn’t moving fast enough. “We got the grand jury report in June. It’s been six months,” said Councilmember Jane Brunner (District 1), the committee chair. “I think we’re absolutely moving too slow.”
The meeting was attended by about 50 people, and was far less lively than other recent council meetings that focused on building services, during which speakers from the audience had shouted at councilmembers and one had been escorted out of the chambers by police. Tuesday’s meeting featured fewer than 10 speakers from the audience, most of whom voiced support of the report, and city officials taking action to fix the building services division.
“I’ve been down here screaming before about things not being done,” West Oakland resident Shirley Burnell said to the committee. “Today I’m down here to say I am glad something is being done.”
Brunner and Councilmember Patricia Kernighan (District 2) raised concerns that according to the report, a task force hadn’t been formed to look into problems with the division, nor has a neutral hearing officer been named. “I think it’s critical, you should have figured out how to do it by now,” Kernighan said of naming a neutral hearing officer. “And it’s absolutely essential it’s someone outside of building services. The system fell apart because nobody had any recourse.”
Though some speakers voiced their anger and frustration in their dealings with the division, some also praised city officials for taking action in trying to fix its problems. “That work that has been started, the work that has progressed, the individual changes in people’s lives are significant,” audience member Michelle Cassens told the council. “Let’s not forget we’re in a teachable moment.”
But others complained about the slowness of reforms. Andrew Vincent, an Oakland resident who was fined for digging out his basement and pouring a concrete floor—which he said he didn’t do—said that fixing the appeals process is of utmost importance, and should have been done by now. Vincent said he filed five requests for an appeal and didn’t hear back, so he sued the city to keep the building from being condemned.
“They’re discussing how to have an appeals process?” Vincent asked rhetorically after the meeting. “They should be discussing how fast they can implement an appeals process that is required by state law. They still don’t get it.”
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