Friday, September 16, 2016

Supervisor: [Riverside County] Grand Jury Report on Code Investigations 'Very Good'

Still, it failed to recognize that "you have to work with people who are sort of the victims in all of this," supervisor says.

A Riverside County Grand Jury report spotlighting shortcomings in how the Department of Code Enforcement handles cases will be used to improve the agency, but not all of the recommendations are relevant, a county official told the Board of Supervisors this week.

"The grand jury has acknowledged a number of areas that need to be addressed," Transportation & Land Management Agency Director Juan Perez said. "One caveat: code cases can be very specific and involve very complex issues. So we cannot apply a one-size-fits-all approach."

Perez was called to the board dais to answer supervisors' questions regarding TLMA's response to the jury's findings, published earlier this summer.

Among the key concerns contained in the 19-member grand jury's report, and answered by TLMA, was the amount of time routinely required to resolve code issues, which can range from rubbish piles on private property to unusable vehicles left parked outside a home for extended periods.

Jurors recommended that the county establish a timeline of 12-18 months to resolve code disputes, for the sake of efficiency and to save money.

"We agree with the general target guidelines," Perez said. "But some cases may take longer than others. Some cases may take less time."

Past board meetings have been tied up with appeals from residents facing tax liens and hefty penalties related to alleged code violations. The grand jury report suggested "improper patronage" may be at work when supervisors take actions on behalf of constituents that conflict with what code enforcement officers are recommending. Board members have the authority to delay proceedings in order to give residents additional time to clean up a site or take other remedial action.

Supervisors Marion Ashley and Kevin Jeffries objected to the implication that efforts to assist constituents smacked of impropriety.

"Elected officials can step in and say, 'We need fairness,"' Jeffries said. "Code fines can reach $1,000 a day. For homeowners, that can be devastating. Residents are seeking a little compassion, and it's our job to make sure government policy is fair and equal. That will continue in our office. We won't stand in the way of code doing its job, but we're going to show compassion."

Ashley agreed, saying that while he found the grand jury report "very good," it failed to recognize that "you have to work with people who are sort of the victims in all of this."

"There are some real strange cases out there," the supervisor said. "We're trying to respond to constituents and do the right thing. There are all kinds of situations, and people are usually making their best efforts."

The grand jury said its investigation uncovered instances in which residents had no means by which to file a formal complaint against a code enforcement officer. Perez said his staff was developing a process for taking complaints that will include making complaint cards available in county offices.

Jurors additionally pointed to the need for a "policy or procedure to return fines previously paid when a property owner is exonerated."

Perez said that would be one of several issues addressed when TLMA drafts a revised procedure manual. The TLMA director also indicated that efforts are underway to disburden code enforcement supervisors, who are sometimes carrying high caseloads, so they can be more readily available to respond to residents' concerns and scrutinize line officers' actions.

Supervisor John Tavaglione noted that code cases have become more complicated, in part because the agency has been downsized as a result of county budget cuts, leaving fewer personnel to manage larger numbers of complaints.

"We want to help people get into compliance," Tavaglione said. "We're going to have to take (the jury's recommendations) slowly."

The code violation appeals process entails three hearings in front of TLMA officials, after which an alleged violator can take his or her case to the board for resolution. Barring satisfaction there, a resident can always seek relief through the judicial process.

"We look forward to resolving issues that may arise so that code is as efficient as possible," County Counsel Greg Priamos said.

September 15, 2016
– By City News Service.
By Patch CA (Patch Staff)

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