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Council Juggles Enforcement Priorities

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

November 29 -- From cracking down on illegal sidewalk signs and excessive noise to investigating buildings for earthquake safety and toxic mold, a ground shift may be underway in the City’s code enforcement policies.

How to best use the Planning Department's code enforcement resources came up Tuesday night when the City Council heard from staff who asked for enforcement priorities after admitting they had fallen behind in their work.

In the end, the council responded by directing staff to study the issue and return later with information that will help the City get the most out of the ten budgeted code compliance officers who police everything from building safety to noise pollution.

“We’ve lost our line,” the City’s top enforcer, Building and Safety officer Tim McCormick told the council. “All of these things compete for our resources and we talked about how they’re all important.”

Battling a backlog of cases and a personnel shortage where only eight of ten code compliance officer positions are filled in spite of more than a year of recruitment, McCormick asked the council which violations should be enforced the most, which the least and how to go about the job.

But the discussion seemed to spawn more questions than answers as council members lamented that some codes -- such as those for signage and noise -- are enforced poorly, while others – such as monitoring buildings for earthquake safety -- are not enforced at all.

“I think the system is broken,” said Council member Bobby Shriver. “We need to do something different because what we are doing isn’t working.”

All agreed that safety issues -- such as building inspections -- must remain
the top priority. Further, each council member agreed that the study should look into how to review Santa Monica’s estimated 1,500 buildings that have not been cleared for earthquake safety.

“When it comes to earthquake enforcement it’s a matter of when, not
whether,” said Council member Kevin McKeown. “We live in a part of the world where earthquakes are going to happen.”

Yet how much attention should be paid to ordinances regulating such issues as auto repair, signs, noise and fence and hedge heights remained a conundrum for council members and staff alike.

“I think any council member can drive the major boulevards around the city and see our code violations against which complaints have been filed and yet they’re going undealt with,” McKeown said.

With eight code compliance officers currently on duty, each earning a yearly salary of nearly $80,000, planning staff have yet to catch up on a backlog of zoning cases that hovers in the hundreds.

Council member Richard Bloom wanted to see enforcement brought up to speed.

“We didn’t go through the exercise about signs to be ignored,” said Bloom about a sign ordinance the City Council spent scores of hours crafting. “We want some attention paid to this.”

But Shriver -- who campaigned last year on relaxing the City’s fence and hedge ordinance -- said less emphasis on policing signs and more effort monitoring toxic mold would be fine with him.

“I don’t have anybody complain(ing) to me about the sandwich board ordinance,” said Shriver.

(Currently no monitoring of toxic mold in Santa Monica is being conducted
because state guidelines have not been fleshed out yet, according to City
officials at the meeting, yet the issue is to be examined by staff in their

Council members Herb Katz and Ken Genser, although agreeing that health and safety come first, said it was important to enforce the signage ordinance.

“We must have a way to do this efficiently,” said Genser, who advocated streamlining the process by cutting back on meeting with violators before issuing a letter.

One priority every council members seemed to agree on was heavier monitoring of noise pollution.

According to McCormick, a full-time code compliance officer has just been
assigned to monitor noise infractions.

However the move comes almost a year after the City council updated the noise ordinance, a year in which no enforcement was conducted.

A further criticism is that many noise violations happen at night, and are
reported to police who are not trained, equipped or inclined to cite

But, for the City to step up enforcement in one area means it may have to ease up on another, according to City Manager Susan McCarthy.

“The enforcement of the sign ordinance is going to have a ripple effect into
other parts of the operation,” McCarthy said.

In addition to prioritizing code enforcement categories, the study will also tackle whether the City should move from its current complaint-driven system to a more proactive approach.

“We need a clear articulation of the balance between the reactive versus the
proactive response,” said McKeown. “Right now we’re trying to respond to everything.”

And he was not alone. Council members Genser, Bloom and Shriver all made comments that they might favor going after offenders before they draw a complaint.

Currently only about 15 percent of all complaints are proactive, made by code officers while looking into another complaint, McCormick said.

But the council members added they were reluctant to advise too heavy-handedly on how to manage code enforcement.

“I’m not going to get into the business of micro-managing,” said Genser.

Similar comments were made by McKeown and Bloom as well, noting that the council will be walking a “tightrope.”

Emphasizing one code over another could lead to some segments of the community feeling picked on and others feeling shortchanged by the City’s regulatory powers, they said.

Setting priorities, however, will be instrumental in solving the problem, said McCarthy, who will retire in two weeks after serving six years as city manager.

“Probably the system is broken,” McCarthy said. “The system benefits from having priorities and we’ll come back and suggest some kind of tiered thing.

“We didn’t intend for you to assign staff,” she said. “We’re not asking for that level of micromanagement. We’re showing you where the effort is now, and saying how could the effort shift.”

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