Bye-bye, Mr. DBI: Controversial Head of S.F. Building Department Bids Adieu
Respected, feared, loved and loathed, Isam Hasenin really was all things to all people. And now he's gone.
By Joe Eskenazi
This week, the city’s politicos and building community had a Kurt Cobain moment. When Isam Hasenin, the director of San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection, announced his resignation on Wednesday, July 23, people were shocked – but they were not surprised.
By accepting a top position at a yet-unnamed company in the private sector, Hasenin abruptly curtailed a cantankerous, 18-month tenure atop the DBI. And while his supporters claim he has given them a road map to reform a department Mayor Gavin Newsom refers to as “that old bastion of the special interests,” critics claim he did so by terrifying his employees and alienating fellow department heads by attempting to appropriate their duties and make them subservient to him.
The crowning achievement of Hasenin’s brief reign is the “Business Process Re-Engineering Report,” a four-inch thick book full of flow-charts and diagrams that either instructs readers how to assemble a Saturn V rocket from scratch or details how to greatly streamline the operations of the Department of Building Inspection. Streamlining, in fact, was Hasenin’s keyword. He delighted the mayor by advocating a smoother permitting process and demanding quicker turn-around times. But when a memo from Hasenin to the mayor advocating DBI assume a virtual monopoly of all the city’s permitting and inspection operations was leaked in late 2007, other department heads sniffed a power grab. “That came off pretty high-handed,” surmised Supervisor Aaron Peskin.
Even Hasenin’s staunchest allies concede he could have been more diplomatic in his attempts to reform the department. His workers have used harsher terminology: A cadre of anonymous DBI workers penned a letter to Newsom and Peskin in December claiming Hasenin valued expediency over quality. “Plan check engineers are afraid...
they will be fired unless they keep up with unreasonable turnaround times and sign off on plans that ... do not comply with code,” read the letter. Several DBI employees contacted by SF Weekly at the time said the charges rang true: “He wants to start talking about other employees. He's looking for you to snitch off somebody,” said a veteran DBI employee – who also predicted Hasenin would snatch some plum offer within a year.
Hasenin – who did not return calls for this article – has not disclosed specifics about his new job. He did tell Building Inspection Commission member Vahid Sattary that he’d be working for a global company out of its San Diego office focusing on building code compliance and doing some international traveling. Hasenin, in fact, never quite left San Diego. While he rented an apartment in San Francisco, his wife and children never left Southern California. This had become a sore point for the Building Inspection Commission, and, evidently, annoyed Peskin as well.
“This is an object lesson on what happens when you hire from out of town. [Hasenin] never took up roots in San Francisco, never moved here and flew home to San Diego every weekend. He was a nice gentleman with whom I never had anything but personable interactions, but he never had a real commitment to San Francisco and the DBI,” said Peskin. “I think it is time for us to look within the department and hire someone who, clearly, is going to stay a while.”