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Inspections from Hell

Building inspectors in Alameda have been accused of harassing homeowners, soliciting bribes, and imposing heavy fines for questionable violations.



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Chiu said Williams also provided him with a list of items he wanted, ranging from the pricey blender to computer equipment to a vacation package for him and his wife. Chiu gave the list to the FBI. "He was stupid," Chiu said. "He put it in writing."

Williams paid $2,000 in restitution, served out his sentence in Santa Rita county jail on weekends, and left the building department, court records show. The FBI confiscated the blender, Chiu said.

At a 2007 sentencing hearing, the judge admonished Williams for violating public trust and taking advantage of his position as a public official, court transcripts show. Williams' attorney assured the judge that Williams, 51, was "very remorseful."

In a letter that same year asking the judge for a free weekend to spend time with his daughter and "reconnect with my church family," Williams echoed that sentiment, saying he understood and accepted his sentence. He went on to quote a Bible passage about discipline ultimately resulting in "righteousness and peace."

Reached by phone at his Dublin home recently, Williams seemed to take a different tone. He criticized Chiu for recording his phone calls without his knowledge and said Chiu's portrait of a greedy inspector taking advantage of a family-run business was inaccurate. "I know the facts, and that's not the way it was," he said, declining to explain further before hanging up.

"A No-Win Situation"

While Chiu's battle with a rogue inspector lasted about four months and ended well for the restaurant owner, Doherty has been sparring with the building department over his Central Avenue residence for years.

Sitting at the Alameda public library on a recent evening, Doherty leafed through binders of carefully labeled documents dating back to the 1980s, peering at the pages through a pair of brown thick-rimmed glasses. "They just took my house," he said, his voice heavy with anger. "They stole it."

Doherty's anger stems from a steadfast belief that city officials have carried out a deliberate plan to force him from his home. His troubles first began in the mid-1980s, court records show, when the city sued to force him to use metal piping instead of plastic for the fire sprinkler system. The city won based on the argument that the ten-unit house was an apartment complex and needed to comply with the appropriate fire safety laws.

Problems flared up again two decades later, when inspectors visited the home in early 2004. Building official McFann said fire officials, who had recently performed the annual inspection required for apartment complexes, advised his department to conduct its own inspection. After the inspection, records show, officials notified Doherty that the home was actually supposed to be a duplex — not an apartment building as the city had argued in the 1980s. They also found several other violations, including unprotected electrical wiring, unsafe gas plumbing, and crumbling front stairs.

In his complaint, Doherty said his electrical work had passed a previous inspection and that inspectors had overblown minor problems like a gas stove that was disconnected while a unit was being repaired. He balked at the order to convert the massive house into two units, saying it had been used as an apartment complex since World War II, decades before he bought the property. Weeks later, according to court documents, inspectors "red-tagged" the building, declaring it "unsafe to occupy." In June 2005, as Doherty was still appealing the inspectors' findings to the local housing board, police visiting the home to deliver a vehicle abatement notice saw the red-tag notice on Doherty's door indicating the property was condemned, court records show.

According to a police report included in the court file, officers cut open a locked gate and entered the backyard. When Doherty appeared at the back door, the officers arrested him for trespassing. Police released Doherty more than an hour later, the report shows, when McFann told them "the unsafe status did not prevent [the house] from being occupied." Doherty received a "courtesy ride" back to his residence, the report noted. For the next three years, records show the city continued to demand Doherty eliminate eight of the house's ten units or face eviction. Doherty and his tenants filed appeals with the local housing board, submitting numerous documents showing the city had previously considered the home an apartment complex. Former Fire Lieutenant Steven McKinley and former City Attorney Carter Stroud submitted declarations on Doherty's behalf, confirming that the house had historically been zoned as an apartment house, not as a duplex, records show.

Alameda Deputy City Attorney Laura Zagaroli said she was aware that previous city officials had considered Doherty's property to be an apartment complex but that those officials had relied on inaccurate information from the fire department. "His house was listed in our records as a duplex," she said. After several years of trying to navigate the city's appeal process, Doherty sued the city in Alameda Superior Court in March 2008. Two days after he filed his complaint, city officials notified Doherty that he and his tenants were being evicted, records show. A Superior Court judge denied Doherty's request to stop the eviction, saying the city could not legally enforce such an action for several months anyway.

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