The ‘how’ of code enforcement

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Los Alamos County Council Chair

In part one of my editorial on code enforcement, I covered the “why” behind the program. Today, I would like to address in some detail the “how” of code enforcement, a process which is managed within the Community Development Department (CDD) by two full-time Code Enforcement Officers.

My hope is that by explaining a little more about the process, I can help clear up confusion and concern in our community.

Let’s begin with clarifying two terms that seem to be interchangeable when the public discusses this sensitive topic, but are very different: Notice Of Violation (NOV) and citation. In fact, these are two very different terms that occur in different steps of the process. While county code sets the standards, our process that implements enforcement of these standards is modeled after best practices used in thousands of communities across America. I do not believe that it is overly restrictive for a town our size and population.

The process begins with a NOV being mailed to the address of the property owner to identify the problem areas. While county code allows a minimum of three days and maximum of 30 days expecting compliance, the policy of the county is to extend this time if contact is made by the recipient of the NOV to ask for an extension or to explain extenuating circumstances.

The standard time frame granted to a recipient to receive an NOV for minor issues (“too tall weeds”) and contact the county is approximately 10 calendar days. For larger, more complex findings (broken windows, excessive outdoor storage of materials), the owner is likely to be granted the full 30 days, since we understand that most people will want to call back with a schedule toward compliance and it takes some time to contact a contractor, etc. In all cases, the primary goal is to let the owner know there is a problem, ask them to contact CDD, and once they call, work with them to resolve it without resorting to a formal process.

One of our lessons learned is that the current NOV is not clear that contact within the time limit is acceptable if compliance is not immediately possible, and we are working on changes to our documentation to make this transparent.

Unless you have lived elsewhere, you may not realize that here in Los Alamos, our CDD staff goes above and beyond what you might find in other communities. If there is no contact made, CDD staff will take the additional step to reach out to the property owner in person or by phone after the initial NOV deadline passes. Most jurisdictions would simply move ahead to step two, which is issuing a formal citation to the property owner, which directs them to appear in court for failing to comply with the code.

I think this personal contact and extra effort is a level of customer service that we should appreciate.

I am not saying that the process is perfect; there is always room for constructive criticism and improvements, and I already mentioned one lesson learned. Based on feedback, CDD staff are currently working to revise the NOV form mailed to the property owner to make it more user-friendly and to prominently feature their contact information.

These are good, positive steps that should help with communication and clarity about an NOV versus a formal citation, and reassure property owners that voluntary compliance is the goal, not citing owners to appear in court.

On a related note, I understand that there are those who don’t appreciate the anonymity of the Code Enforcement complaint, feeling singled out by a problematic neighbor with an ax to grind.

But I can assure you that there are many residents grateful to be anonymous, too, because they wouldn’t dare list their name and address for fear of retaliation. It’s a very common practice found in other communities for good reason.

Next, let’s take a look at step three: what happens in the unlikely event that an NOV turns into a citation and goes to court? I visited with Municipal Judge Alan Kirk this week to get his perspective; he is the one who hears these cases at the Judicial Center across from Ashley Pond Park. He assured me that he thoughtfully asks questions, considers the situation and the violation complexity, then makes his judgment based on the circumstances.

I know from conversations with citizens, that he leans toward giving a property owner more time to address any major issues before fining them as a last resort.

Judge Kirk told me that, as long as the owner is cooperating with CDD and working in good faith to “make progress” toward compliance, he doesn’t see any need for further court action.

He may ask for a schedule or regular progress checks, but without a mechanism that provides a timeline, penalty and way to address all complaints in a fair, unbiased manner, it’s hard to assure any true progress.

While social media comments might indicate that property owners are being sent a citation without first receiving an NOV and without any contact with CDD, I would like to point out that the data does not support that allegation. Out of 1007 NOVs issued for property maintenance related cases since the beginning of 2017, only 45 turned into citations.

And, of those citations, only two cases have finally ended up with court fines.  

The remaining cases were dismissed after it was determined that the issue was resolved.  The exception for CDD staff to skip an NOV would involve a serious life/safety threat that needs urgent attention (for example, a structural issue with a building where there might be concerns for the occupant’s safety or public safety).

The majority of NOVs get resolved quickly, often times within a week. To me, that signals that the NOV process is accomplishing our goal of voluntary compliance. In my view, it’s worth the effort to continue with this path and this process while engaging with our citizens and communicating about the importance of code compliance.