SAN MATEO — Mayor Jack Matthews has been investigated and cleared by an independent attorney regarding allegations that he circumvented a city ordinance in 2001 to avoid installing fire sprinklers in his architecture firm's new office.

City Attorney Shawn Mason hired attorney Gregory Stepanicich in

January to look into charges that Matthews, while serving on the Planning Commission, improperly skirted the 1998 ordinance while renovating his future office at 335 E. Fourth Ave.

Stepanicich's report, submitted Monday to Mason, found that Matthews did nothing wrong. But Paul Olkowski, the former fire marshal whose questions led to the inquiry, disputes the report's findings.

The report also calls into question whether the city's sprinkler ordinance was applied consistently. Mason admitted that a phrase inadvertently may have been deleted from the ordinance in 1999, leading to differing interpretations of the code.

Matthews applied for a building permit in 2001 to remodel half the building at 335 E. Fourth Ave., which had been home to a printing store and, before that, a restaurant that had been gutted by a fire. A dry cleaning business occupies the other half of the building.

Mason said the report found that Matthewstalked to a building official who was on loan to the fire protection bureau and then sent him drawings of the renovations he planned to make to the space.


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The official determined that the renovations did not cover 25 percent of the building's floor area and therefore did not trigger the sprinkler ordinance, Stepanicich's report found, saving Matthews from spending upwards of

$10,000 on the sprinkler installation.

Mason said then-Deputy Fire Marshall Michael Leong came to a different conclusion when he reviewed the file later. But Mason said Leong did not realize the official on loan to the fire protection bureau already had authorized the permit based upon his own reading of the sprinkler ordinance.

Olkowski, who retired as fire marshal in 2003, wrote the sprinkler ordinance and Tuesday he disputed the findings of Stepanicich's report. He also rejected the notion that a phrase was deleted from the ordinance.

The phrase that Mason claims was deleted had to do with how to define 25 percent of a building's floor area. Mason said the missing phrase leads to floor area calculations more likely to trigger the ordinance.

According to Olkowski, he informed Matthews in 2001 that sprinklers would need to be installed at his new office. The official who gave Matthews a favorable interpretation of the ordinance was not authorized to do so, Olkowski said.

"He tried to get somebody to agree with him as to what the ordinance meant," said Olkowski, who now works in Sonora as a fire investigator. "He found someone who was willing to talk to him because he was shopping for answers."

Matthews said Tuesday that he followed all the proper steps when he applied for the building permit and always has been "very scrupulous about conflict of interest issues."

"All along the way we went exactly along with the requirements we were supposed to comply with," Matthews said. "What I can say is the report totally exonerates me and it refutes everything (Olkowski) said."

Matthews added that he was the one who asked Mason to conduct an investigation when he learned about Olkowski's questions.

The inquiry into the renovation of Matthews' office arose from a legal dispute between B Street Billiards, a downtown pool hall, and the city attorney's office. The owner of the billiards hall agreed in January to install fire sprinklers as part of a settlement reached with the city in San Mateo County Superior Court.

As the author of the fire sprinkler ordinance, Olkowski was called to testify in the case. Mason learned of Olkowski's concerns regarding Matthews and the renovation of his office during a conversation before a Jan. 16 court appearance.

Mason said it remains unclear whether the ruling on Matthews' office by the building official is correct and the proper interpretation of the sprinkler ordinance may eventually be decided in court.

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