Building Overtime

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

The SPOT program's influence on Bob Planthold's life is not abstract but concrete — literally. If builders block the sidewalk, the pedestrian activist and childhood polio patient, who uses crutches and leg braces, can't get by. Planthold — an adviser to MTA and a former member of the city's Ethics Commission and Civil Grand Jury — vividly recalls the anger, humiliation, and danger of being forced into Geary Boulevard traffic when scaffolding blocked the walkway, and counts himself as a strong SPOT backer. And yet even he couldn't contain his frustration with the program's "selectivity of enforcement."

"A lot of times, people driving city vehicles get away with it when they're parked on the sidewalk," he says. "There's a figurative blind eye turned toward city employees. For city employees to get two tickets while private contractors got 1,728 [in 2007], that is not the real world."

Tobin defends his practice of not citing city workers, claiming his officers give photos of reckless Public Works, Water Department, and other crews to their supervisors. And yet he concedes that there are no statistics kept on how frequently — or infrequently — city crews are reported to their bosses. There is no measurement to chart whether city crews' behavior is improving. In fact, there's no measurement to chart if anyone's behavior is improving. Four years and millions of dollars' worth of tickets into its existence, SPOT is a program with no statistical method of charting success or failure. Planthold, again, sees this as a major problem. "You need benchmarks," he says. "That's a hallmark of 21st-century government functioning. There ought to be good recordkeeping and a consistent application of the enforcement process."

PG&E received only seven tickets last year, but could potentially have earned a few on this site for an unbarricaded trench next to a crosswalk, improper signage, and blocking the sidewalk.
Jake Poehls
PG&E received only seven tickets last year, but could potentially have earned a few on this site for an unbarricaded trench next to a crosswalk, improper signage, and blocking the sidewalk.
Pedestrian activist Bob Planthold counts himself as a staunch SPOT supporter, but questions why city work crews are so lightly ticketed.
Jake Poehls
Pedestrian activist Bob Planthold counts himself as a staunch SPOT supporter, but questions why city work crews are so lightly ticketed.

That kind of criticism hurts, because Tobin cites professionalism as the number one reason police are needed to staff his program. Police, he says, "are used to stopping behavior that is not lawful. We have a very high standard of not being swayed."

This is an odd statement — and not just because the inspectors from the Department of Public Works, the Department of Building Inspection, and the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration hardly carry reputations for being easily manipulated and incompetent. Tobin's sentiments are also curious because in no other major California city are police — or any employees on overtime — used to enforce traffic and pedestrian safety at construction zones. And in no other city has a system been crafted that amasses such a vast yearly revenue.

Calls to administrators in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, and San Diego revealed that other cities handle blocked sidewalks, open trenches, and other construction site problems with inspectors from Public Works or a similar department. And, unlike the San Francisco approach — admonishments are up this year, but, since '05, SPOT has still issued 10 citations for every admonishment — other cities tend to speak softly before using the big stick. In Long Beach and San Diego, inspectors have no authority to issue tickets, but can shut down a construction site, which rapidly costs a wayward contractor even more. Just the threat of a closure is almost always enough to induce compliance. George Qsar, a construction engineer in San Diego's engineering and capital projects department, estimates the city shuts construction sites only around half a dozen times a year.

In Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland, and San Jose, meanwhile, city inspectors can ticket irresponsible builders, often for up to $1,000. Yet again, the mere threat of such a penalty is virtually always enough to get the city its way. In Sacramento, Public Works inspectors opted to issue $1,000 tickets only eight times in the first eight months of this year. And across the bay in Oakland, the city gave itself the authority to issue $1,000 tickets in July — and hasn't written one yet.

Incidentally, San Francisco's own Department of Public Works also has the authority to issue tickets of $1,000 or more, and hasn't been standing idly by during SPOT's ascent. Barbara Moy, the manager of the DPW's street use and mapping bureau, confirmed that since March alone, her department has issued 98 correction notices — admonishments — and 76 notices of violation. Those violations resulted in $178,000 worth of fines. "This might be a record year," she says. "There's a record amount of infrastructure work going on in the city." When it comes to fining builders, San Francisco is truly the city that knows how.


Whatever else they're accused of, don't charge San Francisco's contractors with not knowing the meaning of irony: Local builders, many of whom were flagged for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, find their cases adjudicated in a building that is not ADA-compliant. To reach the second-floor hearing room at the San Francisco headquarters of the California Community Dispute Services, you must duck into a garage stuffed with hubcaps and broken-down furniture and ascend a rickety staircase that looks as if it were assembled by Robinson Crusoe.

Seated around a faux-wood folding table and outfitted in T-shirts invariably inscribed with the names and phone numbers of their construction companies, builders pass the tedium with shop talk and gripes about the tickets they're here to appeal.

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