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Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007 | For months, the Mayor’s Office has said that Isam Hasenin, the city’s chief building inspector, didn’t sign off on a crucial document in the Sunroad saga for a simple reason: He didn’t want to weigh in on a divisive political issue.
But internal e-mails and interviews show that Hasenin had already declined Sunroad’s request and continued to argue against authorizing the document right up to the day it was eventually issued by his boss, Development Services Director Marcela Escobar-Eck.
A Missing Signature
That document allowed Sunroad to all but finish the 180-foot building, which has been at the heart of an ongoing political storm. At that height, the Federal Aviation Administration claims the building is hazardous to aircraft using nearby Montgomery Field Airport.
“[Chief City Inspector Joe Harris] tells me you’re about to sign a letter allowing them to do work in the roof area,” Hasenin wrote to Escobar-Eck on Dec. 19, 2006. “I have reviewed the plans with senior structural staff and would recommend against allowing any work in the topmost floor, the roof, and penthouse.”
The decision to override Hasenin has proven to be a key step in the city’s accommodation of Sunroad’s controversial tower.
The e-mails, obtained through a Public Records Act request, show Hasenin had concerns about allowing any work to continue on the top stories of the Sunroad building and advised Escobar-Eck against issuing a letter that would allow such work to take place.
They are the clearest indication to date that the office of Mayor Jerry Sanders broke with its staff’s advice, instead siding with Sunroad by allowing work to continue on the building.
And the episode is another instance in the Sunroad saga in which the information released by the Mayor’s Office has contradicted the events that occurred within the walls of City Hall.
The city issued an order for Sunroad to stop work in October. Hasenin said company officials then approached the city for permission to perform certain work that they said was necessary to shield the building from the elements.
As the city’s building inspection supervisor, Hasenin was tasked with assessing Sunroad’s proposal. He said that after meeting with his chief inspectors, he decided against allowing all the work Sunroad wanted to do, because he thought it went beyond what the company needed to do to protect its building from the weather while construction was halted.
Sunroad went over his head, Hasenin said.
“They weren’t happy with the decision I made,” said Hasenin, who now works in San Francisco. “They wanted more, and after that I basically was out of the loop and it was done at a higher level.”
Shortly afterwards, Sunroad’s president and vice president of development met with Sanders on Dec. 19. Fred Sainz, the mayor’s spokesman, said the Sunroad executives asked Sanders to approve the ongoing work.
Three hours before the meeting, Hasenin had sent an e-mail to Escobar-Eck urging caution.
Two days after the mayor’s meeting, Hasenin again warned Escobar-Eck against allowing the work, pointing out that if the top 20 feet of the building — which exceeded the FAA’s height limit — had to be removed, all the new work to the top of the building would also have to come down.
Later that day, Escobar-Eck sent Sunroad a letter allowing them to perform the work they had requested.
Escobar-Eck said she saw the work as crucial to the “weatherizing” of Sunroad’s building — a term she said Hasenin invented (Hasenin denies coining the word). The building had to be protected from the weather in order to protect the city from greater liabilities in its coinciding lawsuit with Sunroad, Escobar-Eck said.
Escobar-Eck said she was aware of Hasenin’s concerns, but said that after meeting with him, she decided to go ahead and allow the work.
Sainz said he was initially told by Escobar-Eck that Hasenin had removed himself from the decision-making process because he felt uncomfortable wading into a potential political firestorm. In past months, this has become the Sanders administration’s standard response to why Hasenin’s signature was noticeably missing from such a key document.
“I understand that [Escobar-Eck] went to [Hasenin] and asked him if he was willing to do it and he said no,” Sanders told talk radio host Roger Hedgecock on June 14. “She said alright, I’ll do it. She didn’t try to put the pressure on him to do it, knowing that it was a political situation.”
Sainz said the mayor was not aware of the concerns raised by his staff prior to his administration’s approval of the ongoing work. Had the mayor known of Hasenin’s and others’ reservations, Sainz said, he would not have allowed Sunroad to keep working on the disputed portion of their building.
The decision to allow Sunroad to continue weatherizing the building lay solely with Escobar-Eck and Jim Waring, then the mayor’s top land use official, Sainz said. Waring resigned last week under the weight of the Sunroad issue.
“Marcela and the mayor never spoke about it,” Sainz said.
The mayor’s decision to loosen the stop-work order has turned into one of the more contentious episodes in the Sunroad affair. Sanders’ own Office of Ethics & Integrity opined in a July report that the move failed to protect the city’s interests.
“One must question the prudence of this course of action because modifying the [stop-work order] removed much of the leverage the City had in trying to get Sunroad to comply” with the FAA’s height limit, the report stated.
City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s office had also advised Waring not to allow any work to continue at the Sunroad site, and had urged against any modification of the stop-work order.
Given the mayor’s meeting with Sunroad’s president two days before Escobar-Eck gave her approval to Sunroad’s ongoing work, some critics said Escobar-Eck must have been taking her orders from above.
“I have to believe that someone higher up told her that this was the mayor’s administration’s decision and that she was to abide by it, because otherwise she would have relied on the input and advice from the hands-on people,” said Gerald Blank, an attorney for a group of pilots that use Montgomery Field Airport.
“This is starting to stink of a cover-up,” he added.
Sanders later changed positions on the Sunroad issue, asking the developer to bring the building down 20 feet to the FAA-acceptable height of 160 feet. Sunroad and the city are currently engaged in a lawsuit over who has liability for the building being constructed at that height.