Building Overtime

Off-duty police officers making time and a half are swarming over construction sites, handing out tickets. Only in S.F.

That did not surprise midsize contractor John Pollard. SPOT records indicate he paid seven tickets last year — the exact same number as PG&E. He doesn't dispute that he deserved those tickets, but can't fathom a system in which small-to-midsize contractors are more heavily penalized than a billion-dollar utility company, while city crews — legendary in the building community for their carelessness — aren't penalized at all.

On a drive around the city, it didn't take long for Pollard to run into a bevy of problematic work sites. PG&E was tearing apart whole streets in Potrero Hill, and he pointed and shouted "622 dollars! 622 dollars!" at every potential violation. Gaping trenches without barricades, trucks and equipment parked on sidewalks, street closures without signage, and large earth-moving machines backing blindly into oncoming traffic were only the most egregious PG&E violations he saw.

And Pollard was just getting warmed up. Down the road, San Francisco Water Department crews blocked entire streets and sidewalks without any signs indicating a road closure. Port of San Francisco trucks were double-parked along the Mission Bay waterfront, and a backhoe sat unattended on the sidewalk not far off. Across town in North Beach, a Public Works tree-trimming crew had neglected to place a "lane closed ahead" sign prior to the intersection in which its trucks were parked, and a big rig driver nearly missed the abrupt blockage. He swerved, but still crushed an orange cone, just a few yards from oblivious tourists.

Midsize contractor John Pollard paid as many SPOT tickets last year as PG&E did.
Jake Poehls
Midsize contractor John Pollard paid as many SPOT tickets last year as PG&E did.
The open trenches on this downtown site present a clear risk for the visually impaired.
Jake Poehls
The open trenches on this downtown site present a clear risk for the visually impaired.

While Tobin told SF Weekly that the major downtown-area construction sites are "tuned in" to SPOT regulations and far safer than their smaller colleagues remodeling homes in the avenues, a journey to the actual sites was far from reassuring. At 1 Rincon Hill — perhaps the most visible project in the city — the entire sidewalk was blocked off without signage, and construction vehicles motored against traffic on the wrong side of the road. On Mission Street downtown, where high-rise construction sites loom over the area, pedestrians dodged construction machines on the sidewalk and wandered into busy streets to avoid double-parked flatbeds unloading equipment. Open trenches spiked with jutting bits of rebar resembled miniature tiger traps. Just a stone's throw away stood a pod of off-duty police officers earning overtime pay from the construction companies to "oversee" the site.

Tobin seems taken aback when asked why sites staffed by police on overtime aren't hit by SPOT. He insists they are — but can't name the last time it happened, stating that it "probably" occurred last year. To put that answer into perspective, in 2007 and '08 to date, more than 2,500 tickets have been issued.

Meanwhile, 57 city officials or building professionals queried by SF Weekly said they have never heard of a citation being issued on a site staffed by police officers on overtime — and it certainly hasn't happened to them. Andy Schreck and Tom Taylor, project managers for Webcor — one of the state's largest construction companies and a frequent SPOT target — confirm they've gotten their share of tickets, but never on the days they hired police. Any ticketable offense "will be smoothed out," Schreck says. Some builders say the most useful part of hiring off-duty cops is that it prevents on-duty police from dropping by at all. A structural engineer for a major downtown paving job notes that "when we hired cops, everyone turned the other way. But when we didn't hire them and had our own guys flagging, chaos broke loose. The cops were all over us. When I worked for the big boys, it was always implied that if you had cops on your site, you wouldn't have a problem."

A number of contractors have told SF Weekly that Tobin suggested it would be beneficial if they hired police on overtime. Several distinctly recall Tobin doing so during a May 2007 meeting with the Residential Builders Association (RBA). "He said, 'If you hire these officers they'll show you how to set up your cones and your problems will be solved,'" RBA president Sean Keighran recalls. RBA treasurer Richie Hart, who was also present, claims Tobin said, "All the big guys hire police officers on overtime and they never have a problem on their jobs. That's something everybody should do." Pollard says Tobin hit him up during a SPOT safety seminar to hire police. And another contractor — who, like many builders contacted for this story, feared retribution if his name was revealed — said he was issued a ticket by officers who chided him for not hiring police. "I called Tobin and told him this was extortion, and I would scream and scream loud and it would be heard," he says. "He said he'd take care of it." According to the contractor, Tobin made the ticket go away. Other contractors said they, too, had been asked to hire police — and complied — but refused to have their names used for fear this article will touch off a ticketing barrage.

Tobin issued a blanket denial that any of the above instances took place, and could not recall "taking care of" the aforementioned ticket: "If they are saying I want them to put cops on their job site, then, absolutely, they are lying."

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