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PART III: Council Weighs in on Code Enforcement

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

November 2 -- The City Council's effort to spiffy up the densely populated City by cracking down on everything from tall hedges to sidewalk sandwich boards has become a hot button issue in the race for four open council seats.

A few weeks after voting to forgive current hedge height infractions in response to an outpouring of community opposition, some of the same council members who voted for proactive enforcement and increased resources in 2002 are signaling they may be hedging on code enforcement as a whole.

"We'll continue in this direction for the time being, yes, but I think the council may step back and take a look at things on an issue by issue basis in January," said Mayor Richard Bloom.

Bloom, who along with Council members Ken Genser, Michael Feinstein and Kevin McKeown voted in 2002 to make code enforcement the Planning Department's top budget priority, said he is still in favor of continued proactive enforcement for certain violations.

"The fact is that we were seeing no enforcement at all, and this proactive approach has worked very well in such instances as auto repair, while it has not been quite as effective on others, such as signage," Bloom said.

In fact, auto repair violations dipped since 2001, from 28 complaints filed and initiated to 20. However, they are targeted to jump to 50 beginning next year.

But the enforcement has come at a cost in the midst of the City's biggest economic crunch in a decade.

Since the new emphasis on enforcement went into effect two years ago, the Building and Safety Division's budget has grown to an estimated $3.5 million in the current fiscal year, up from $2.2 million in 2001-02, according to Finance Director Steve Stark. Of the total, $1.5 million is spent on code enforcement, according to planning officials.

Some on the current City Council question the value of placing so much money and emphasis on enforcing the City's zoning code.

"When you go out looking for stuff, you're going to have problems," said Council member Herb Katz, who is seeking reelection. "We have taken this to the next step, it's now something akin to a police state."

Katz said the proponents of enforcement "essentially want to have a perfect city," noting that "some guy complained about a church bell."

With the projected jump to nearly 1,300 zoning violations next fiscal year, Katz worries that "the City would be losing twice as much money on such proactive code enforcement," while failing to make a dent in the backlog of cases.

And while Katz said he would like to see the City remain vigilant for building code violations -- many of which involve safety issues -- he believes the City should spend its money elsewhere.

"We should be spending such money on schools and other more important programs rather than pissing it away," Katz said. "If this is losing money, we should be spending it elsewhere."

Other City officials contend that the money spent on an approach that was never meant to pay for itself is justified.

"I disagree with the characterization that this is a program that is losing money," said Bloom, who added that the he finds the City's current level of funding acceptable. "I think this can all be filed away under the heading of welfare for the community.

"Code enforcement is not intended to be a profit center for the City," he said. "These are quality of life issues affecting everyone in the City."

Yet, before the Planning Commission voted in 2001 to recommend that the council make code enforcement the Planning Department's top budget priority, the issue seemed of concern to only a few residents, City officials said.

"There was no widespread community outcry," said Kyle Ferstead, a Planning Commission staff assistant who has been transcribing meeting minutes since 1989. "Usually three or four people would come to speak. but no fresh faces."

Ferstead recalled that Planning Commissioners Kelly Olsen, Jay Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Arlene Hopkins, noted they were responding to complaints lodged by residents outside the meetings.

The emphasis on enforcement has encouraged residents who otherwise may have remained silent about code violations to come forward, Johnson said.

"People feel more empowered, and there is increased awareness of the process," Johnson said. "People are seeing we were doing more about it, and now they are more likely to report violations."

Former Planning Commissioner Kelly Olsen -- a primary proponent for increased enforcement since the late 1990's -- maintains that the City should go even further in enforcing violations.

"I was the one pushing it on City Council as a priority," said Olsen, who said there was "a long history of neighbors complaining about auto repair and bars that were too loud."

Code violations remain rampant, he said, despite the current level of enforcement.

"They should be more proactive if people are not being served," said Olsen, who served on the City Council from 1990 to 1994.

When asked, Olsen said he would be in favor of doubling the $1.5 million the City spends now per year.

"If that's what it takes to improve the quality of life in Santa Monica, then that's what it takes," said Olsen. "There are probably more people affected on a day-by-day basis by commercial intrusion than by crime in this City, and how much do we spend on the police department annually."

Yet Olsen believes the Department is not without its problems.

"I think we're not getting our current money's worth," said Olsen, adding the City seems to be "pushing around more paper, than doing enforcement."

Some current council members share Olsen's view that proactive enforcement is the right coarse, but that the method remains riddled with inefficiency.

"I'm very disappointed in the work, in the way it has been applied," said Council member Genser, who called the system "unnecessarily bureaucratic."

Genser said he still sees violations that are not being enforced. "I don't see much improvement, there are still signs on the street, sandwich signs blocking the sidewalk even," Genser said.

A majority of the council have advocated revisiting the City's zoning code.

"What happened here is folks started to micromanage, in a sense, and no one really took a step back to see what laws need to be on the books," said Council member Pam O'Connor. "We need to be judicious about what laws are on the books.

"The zoning code is old," O'Connor said. "When you take a microscope to anything you're going to find problems. I can tell you I won't be looking for two more code enforcers in the coming years."

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