The city has more than 20 modifications to the state's fire code on the books, from a fire-sprinkler ordinance to a rule governing the identification of fire lanes, but documentation on file with the state Building Standards Commission appears incomplete.
The city's interpretation of its filings differs in one key respect from that of the head of the state Building Standards Commission, the agency that keeps track of all the changes made by local jurisdictions to the state Building Standards Code.
State law requires that cities or counties making changes to the Building Standards Code submit findings of fact justifying those changes, along with a list of the modifications.
Dave Walls, executive director of the commission, said the modifications are submitted in the form of copies of relevant code sections that illustrate how they've been changed. But in 2003, San Mateo Fire Marshal Michael Leong did not include any of the city's modifications to state fire codes.
The city's position is that the modified code sections, while not separately listed, were mentioned in the findings of fact, and therefore the filing was sufficient. The commission never informed the city that the filing was incomplete, city officials said.
"If they don't send a rejection letter, the city or county can assume that the filing was accepted," Assistant City Attorney Bahar Abdollahi said.
Walls said the commission's policy is to have full accounts of which codesections were changed and how they were altered.
"Basically, we've always taken the position that the modification needs to be shown for the record," said Walls.
City Manager Arne Croce said the filings are technicalities and do not impede the city's authority to enforce its rules, but state law mandates that local amendments to state codes are not effective until they have been properly filed with the commission.
"Certainly we need to make these filings, but the absence of those filings does not make the city's codes illegal or unenforceable," Croce said.
The commission also does not have any record of two changes to the building code and one amendment to the plumbing code. As to those cases, Croce acknowledged the city did not file one of the changes correctly and is looking into the others.
City Councilwoman Carole Groom said she felt comfortable, based on her conversations with Croce and City Attorney Shawn Mason, that the city has followed the rules.
"Of course, we should follow all laws, and I believe we have," Groom said.
The legal consequences of the city's filings remain unclear. BJ Foster, a consultant and former deputy state fire marshal, recommended that the city not enforce the codes in question until resubmitting its filings.
Tom Camerato, a business consultant who brought the issue of the codes to the city's attention, said a court may still have the last word.
"That's where the rubber meets the road in a courtroom," said Camerato, who has a financial stake in B Street Billiards, a downtown pool hall.
Camerato researched the city's filings after San Mateo officials required the pool hall install sprinklers. Camerato felt the city enforces the fire sprinkler ordinance inconsistently and was too aggressive in its pursuit of B Street Billiards.
A San Mateo County Superior Court judge ruled Jan. 17 in a suit brought against B Street Billiards by the city that an earlier version of the city's fire sprinkler ordinance from 1998 was invalid because the city did not properly file the amendment with the state.
Staff writer Aaron Kinney can be reached at (650) 348-4302 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.