SAN MATEO — At the heart of a dispute over Mayor Jack Matthews' construction of an office for his architecture firm in 2001 is a strange case of bureaucratic malfunction.

Matthews recently was investigated and absolved of any wrongdoing over allegations by former fire marshal Paul Olkowski that Matthews, who served on the Planning Commission at the time, improperly avoided installing fire sprinklers at his office at 335 E. Fourth Ave. to save roughly $25,000.

The investigation, which arose out of a separate dispute over sprinklers between the city and downtown pool hall B Street Billiards, revealed that the city's fire sprinkler ordinance is missing a key phrase bolstering the fire marshal's application of the code.

Because the phrase was removed from the ordinance, a temporary fire protection bureau employee in 2001 inaccurately interpreted the sprinkler ordinance for Matthews' case and others, according to the investigative report released Monday.

Olkowski, who wrote the sprinkler ordinance in 1998, disagrees with the findings of the report, which was conducted by independent attorney Gregory Stepanicich. Olkowski retired as fire marshal in 2003 and now lives in Sonora.

The ordinance requires that businesses install a sprinkler system throughout their entire building when performing renovations that take up more than 25 percent of the building's floor area.

The original ordinance, as approved by the City Council in 1998, included a phrase mandating that, when calculating the floor area affected by a renovation, "the total square footage of each room where the remodel ... is to take place shall be included."

For B Street Billiards, which occupies the first floor of atwo-story building at 164 South B St., that meant work performed on a small portion of the wide-open first floor was determined to involve the entire ground story.

The phrase was meant to trigger as many sprinkler installations as possible. As Fire Marshall Michael Leong said Wednesday, "the whole idea of a sprinkler ordinance was to get most of the buildings in San Mateo to have a fire sprinkler system."

But the phrase was left out of the ordinance when it was updated in 1999, in what City Attorney Shawn Mason says may have been an inadvertent deletion. Despite its omission, the city has continued to enforce the sprinkler ordinance according to the floor-area calculation spelled out in the missing phrase.

There was an exception in 2001, however, when building inspector Rick Caro spent more than six months working as a plan checker for the short-staffed fire protection bureau.

Caro told Stepanicich that during his stay at the fire bureau, he was not aware of the unwritten principle governing floor-area calculations, so he simply followed what he saw in the pages of the city code. As a result, his interpretations of the ordinance were more relaxed than they should have been.

Caro, now the city's senior building inspector, remains unapologetic about his strict reading of the code, which he thinks offered a fairer interpretation to commercial tenants.

"The bottom line is I still say I interpreted it the way it was supposed to be done, and I would go all the way with that," Caro said. "I believe in being fair, and I believe in doing what the code says, not what I think."

Leong, who as deputy fire marshal was Caro's supervisor in 2001, said he never realized Caro was deviating from the department's standard procedures. He also admitted that he is bothered by the department's inconsistent enforcement of the ordinance.

"We've got to be consistent in how we apply the code," Leong said.

Mason said the city will reassess the ordinance, but he thinks it may not be necessary to reinsert the missing phrase.

"The only way it becomes an issue is if we find ourselves fighting about it in court," said Mason, acknowledging the possibility that business owners who were held to the stricter reading of the ordinance might take legal action against the city. 

Leong was unable to provide an estimate Tuesday of how many buildings have been forced to install sprinklers since the ordinance went into effect. Matthews alone has overseen several projects that required sprinklers.

Matthews said the ordinance is worth revisiting.

"I think it's for the city attorney and the City Council and the fire marshal to determine what's the proper application of the law, without being burdensome to the business owner," Matthews said.

Though the investigation into the renovations of Matthews' office is complete, Olkowski's view of the issue remains unchanged. Olkowski says he informed Matthews from the start that he would need sprinklers, and Matthews later persuaded Caro to rule otherwise.

Matthews says he does not recall speaking to Olkowski before applying for a building permit. He called Caro because Caro was the assigned plan checker and listed as the designated contact person on Matthews' building permit application.

"We didn't hide anything," Matthews said. "I didn't cherry-pick to find the opinion most favorable to us."

Stepanicich's report found some of Olkowski's claims to be unfounded. For instance, Olkowski incorrectly stated that Caro never worked for the fire protection bureau. In addition, Caro and Assistant City Attorney Mike Ogaz rejected Olkowski's accounts of his conversations with them.

"I'm not really sure what his motivation is," Matthews said of Olkowski. "But I know he felt that I went around him and he's upset about that."

Staff writer Aaron Kinney can be reached at (650) 348-4302 or by e-mail at akinney@sanmateocountytimes.com.