KMUD News reporter, Cynthia Elkins speaks with Dirk Voss, President of the Code Enforcement Officials Association. C : . . .Humboldt County officials are considering how to resurrect the Code Enforcement Unit, and specifically where it should be housed. County Supervisors were set to decide the issue at their meeting last week, but delayed the decision until [Dec. 17th] due to the lack of a public notice. Currently county officials are considering whether or not to place the unit within the County Sheriff?s Department or in the District Attorney?s Office. Supervisor Clif Clendenen addressed the matter on KMUD last week, signalling that he favors putting the Code Enforcement Unit in the Sheriff?s Office. Clendenen referenced a website by the California Association of Code Enforcement Officers as one reason for his preference of putting the Code Enforcement Unit there, saying the website referenced many incidents where Code Enforcement Officers had been harmed or killed while on the job. However, the President of the Association of Code Enforcement Officers, Dirk Voss, says he does not think they should be in under the Sheriff?s Department, or under the County DA?s office, for that matter.
DV: There?s absolutely no reason, whatsoever, for a code enforcement officer to ever have to carry a gun. There just isn?t. It?s not that type of work. If you feel that threatened level, then you should bring a police officer. My biggest fear with code enforcement is that it ventures into such an enforcement process. And really the objective all along is to be compliant, compliance-driven, get people to understand the property maintenance codes, the housing and building codes, the zoning ordinances, land usage, and the like, and educate them. And some people are going to be sticklers. And when you get into some of the more rural areas there is what I like to call a healthy disrespect for governance that?s rather strong. And when you come knocking on their door with a gun, they?re rather threatened, and they?re going to take you on. And I find up and down the state we have cities where code officers are wearing police type uniforms, and their city manager and city council and whatever, department heads, are wondering, ?Why do we get these complaints about attitude and those things?? Well, part of it is because of their presence. When you come to my door looking like a policeman, it?s intimidating. And then when you tell me I?ve got an inoperable car, or a property maintenance, or maybe a shed or a patio cover that?s unpermitted, you?re taking it to a Police State type of mentality, which triggers people?s anger.
C: Voss believes it works best when Code Enforcement Officers are called Code Compliance Officers, instead, and when they wear button-down or polo shirts instead of uniforms. And he says when Code Officers bring Police Officers on to a property, they?ve raised the bar as far as what level they are taking the situation.
DV: A lot of police departments are very cognisant of that, and so they don?t want to dog-pile and bring in two or three, they just bring one officer for safety kind of thing. Unless you truly know it?s a big deal, then you can get an inspection warrant, and your abatement warrants, and then you bring in everybody that you need to bring in to enforce that.
C: Voss says very few Code Enforcement Offices in the State or within a Police Department or under a County Sheriff.
DV: Primarily because: one, they enforce an entirely different type of code. And Code Enforcement is very grey. It?s not all black and white. It?s very grey, very subjective, very political. You have to be user-friendly in this way. It?s not to say that law enforcement is not, but it typically it is not. It?s intimidating. And you deal with different processes. Code officers shouldn?t be pulled away from what they?re doing and out doing traffic enforcement or writing police reports and what have you. You know, they need to focus on what they?re doing. It?s not a very good nexus, and you don?t enforce any of the same codes whatsoever.
C: Humboldt County Officials are also considering housing the Code Enforcement Unit within the District Attorney?s Office. Voss says he does not know any within the State who are under the District Attorney?s Office, but he does know at least one who are under a City Attorney?s Office. He says it?s not necessarily a bad idea, but it?s not what he recommends.
DV: It?s one that can work, but then you?ve got to be careful of the heavy-handedness, you have to make sure that there?s flexibility in the enforcement. Not knowing how the DA operates, a lot of times DA?s will operate in a manner of by-the-book kind of enforcement, and you can?t enforce by-the-book all the time. For essentially 6-inches higher than what the code allows, is it worth doing anything for that? The spirit of the law says 5-6- inches, but if it?s built up-to-code, other than it?s 5-inches taller, if it?s not inhibiting anything, why make them cut it down? You know, there are some of those types of decisions that can be made that some agencies may not allow.
C: Voss believes the best option is to put Code Enforcement under the City Manager, or in the case of a county, in the County Administrative Office. He says those offices are political and have to address issues that are contentious, that have a lot of grey areas, and affect a broad range of interests. Voss says this makes the office more sensitive to the community as a whole.
DV: Code Enforcement needs to be that. It needs to be sensitive in those manners. And under that you?re going to have a level of independence to be able to operate and adjust to those ebb and flows that are there. But at the same time you?re going to be able to have some authority over you to make that decision if you need that. And you?re not going to be swayed by one department, or influenced by another, because you are under the City Manager?s Office, and you enforce your multitude of codes.
C: If Code Enforcement is not under a City Manager or County Administrators Office, Voss says he highly recommends that it be under the Development Services Department. He says that?s where roughly three-quarters of all Code Enforcement Units of the State are housed.
DV: A super-majority of Code Officers regularly enforce zoning ordinances all the time. You have an immediate nexus with Development Services, and more specifically, a Planning Department, in land-use enforcement. And sometimes you?re going to be dealing with things like land-use and encroachmentissues, and so that?s where Public Works falls into play. If you?re dealing with sub-standard housing, building code violations in the life of the building, the Building Department operates under Development Services. And with that, that?s who you?re working with every day. And when you are addressing issues on a property, whether or not there?s marijuana being there, or kid issues, or whatever else it might be there, you can go ahead and you can deal with that fact of what?s exactly there. And that could be that building code violations are there. ?Hey, I?m here because I need to address the building code violations.? You work for the DA, you work for the Sheriff?s Department, you?re going to find that they?re going to come in probably a little more heavy-handed, and say, ?Shut this place down, now.? Well, that works fine, but it doesn?t really work. Because where are you going to put the family? And you have to house them. You know, there?s so many different dynamics. And a lot of it has to do with a mind set. You?re there to help the people. You?re there to gain compliance. You?re there to educate people. Not everybody has created their own predicament. It could be because of a landlord. It could be because of loss of jobs. You need to be sensitive to them. Not to say the Sheriff and the DA?s office don?t do a good job, I?m sure they do, it?s just not the right agency for that type of function.
C: That again was the President of the Association of Code Officers, Dirk Voss.