Here’s a tip to perhaps the next governor of California on a worthy piece of springtime reading.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin -- dig into “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department” by the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
The 2018 gubernatorial campaign might touch on some of the issues found in the report. Those issues include code enforcement, social capital and personal responsibility.
I make this suggestion not because I think the City of Fresno is plagued by the same policy sins described in the DOJ’s Ferguson report. Just the opposite. I make the suggestion because the City of Fresno is tackling head-on, with passion and wisdom, the municipal challenges of code enforcement, social capital and personal responsibility.
Those challenges are State of California challenges. Swearengin, should she run for governor in 2018, should be positioned to direct (and maybe win) the campaign debate.
The DOJ’s 102-page report is much in the news of late. It grew out of the Aug. 9, 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown (an African American) by police officer Darren Wilson (white) in Ferguson, Missouri.
The report’s summary includes this paragraph:
“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities. Over time, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular.”
What’s this got to do with Fresno?
One of my early thoughts on the Ferguson shooting revolved around the issue of code enforcement. Code enforcement, when you prune away all of the hoopla, is probably the No. 1 issue these days at City Hall.
In a nutshell, the Ferguson shooting unfolded like this:
The 18-year-old Brown and a friend, Dorian Johnson, were walking in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson during the daylight hours of Aug. 9. Their walk took them along a sidewalk of West Florissant Avenue, a key part of Ferguson’s retail sector. Brown and Johnson then turned onto Canfield Drive.
Certain high-profile events on this day involving Brown occurred before he and Johnson got onto Canfield. Those events are important, of course, but do not concern my specific points in this blog.
Brown and Johnson on Canfield were walking in the middle of the street. Wilson, a Ferguson police officer, approached them in his patrol car. He told them to get out of the middle of the street. Johnson said he and Brown were headed to a nearby home. “We’re almost there,” Johnson told Wilson.
Events then moved rapidly. A confrontation between Brown and Wilson ensued. Wilson shot and killed Brown. Events both during the Wilson-Brown confrontation and subsequently on a national level unfolded as they did.
What intrigues me here (as it did the DOJ to a substantial degree) is code enforcement. As a City Hall reporter in Fresno, I see code enforcement constantly influence just about every level of municipal policy in a city of 515,000 people. How did something in Ferguson that (to an outsider like me) should have been no more than a minor code enforcement spat turn into something deadly and transform the name “Ferguson” into a permanent and controversial landmark in American history?
After all, Brown and Johnson were simply walking in the middle of the street. Now, that’s a code violation in just about any American city. No need here to go into why. Such a violation in real life can be handled in many ways. Yet, this mundane code violation in Ferguson on Aug. 9, 2014 turned within seconds into a situation where a man was killed and a nation was torn apart.
The DOJ, as noted in the paragraph above, points to Ferguson City Hall’s criminal pattern of racial discrimination and mania for money as the main causes.
I suggest a third reason: Code enforcement is the toughest thing a city government does. Code enforcement is where liberty and equality collide. Code enforcement is what makes or breaks a civilization.
When code enforcement comes primarily from the people, voluntarily and as part of a cohesive society, a city works. When code enforcement comes primarily from a central power, oppressive measures that can only corrupt government almost certainly are inevitable.
When the latter happens, a city doesn’t work. Ferguson by August 2014 had ceased to work.
I’ll take a brief look at three things in this blog:
1.) The DOJ report.
2.) Various Ferguson City Hall policy and financial reports that are the routine product of any incorporated city.
3.) Where code enforcement stands today in the City of Fresno.
THE DOJ REPORT
I thought of a Ponzi Scheme while reading through the report.
We all know about a Ponzi Scheme. A crook seek investors in a can’t-miss business. The crook promises huge returns. But there’s no business actually producing those returns. The crook simply pays the first round of investors with money from the second round of investors. The second round of investors gets paid from the third round of investors. The house of cards eventually (and inevitably) collapses.
Bernie Madoff’s wealth management firm was the classic Ponzi Scheme.
Besides greed, there’s another constant to every Ponzi Scheme -- panic among the crooks. They know the scheme can’t go on forever. They know time will run out. The only question is whether they flee the country before that happens.
I didn’t see where the DOJ said as much, but the report sure builds a case that Ferguson City Hall officials by August 2014 must have known their way of running city finances (nearly 17% of general fund revenues to come every year from fines/code enforcement) was headed for a spectacular crackup.
I wonder why Ferguson’s outside auditor and the Wall Street credit-rating agencies didn’t see the same fundamental problem that the DOJ saw.
Here are 10 excerpts connected to code enforcement from the DOJ report:
1.) “The City budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved.”
2.) “Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation.”
3.) “In 2013 alone, (Ferguson’s municipal court) issued over 9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations. Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees.”
4.) “The court often fails to provide clear and accurate information regarding a person’s charges or court obligations. And the court’s fine assessment procedures do not adequately provide for a defendant to seek a fine reduction on account of financial incapacity or to seek alternatives to payment such as community service. City and court officials have adhered to these court practices despite acknowledging their needlessly harmful consequences.”
5.) The Ferguson police department “appears to bring certain offenses almost exclusively against African Americans. For example, from 2011 to 2013, African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges.” (Ferguson is about two-thirds African American.)
6.) Ferguson police officers “are authorized to initiate charges -- by issuing citations or summonses, or by making arrests -- under both the municipal code and state law. Ferguson’s municipal code addresses nearly every aspect of civic life for those who live in Ferguson, and regulates the conduct of all who work, travel through, or otherwise visit the City.”
7.) “Between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2014, the City of Ferguson issued approximately 90,000 citations and summonses for municipal violations. Notably, the City issued nearly 50% more citations in the last year of that time period than it did in the first. This increase has not been driven by a rise in serious crime.”
8.) “Of the $11.07 million in general fund revenue the City collected in fiscal year 2010, $1.38 million came from fines and fees collected by the court; similarly, in fiscal year 2011, the City’s general fund revenue of $11.44 million included $1.41 million from fines and fees. In its budget for fiscal year 2012, however, the City predicted that revenue from municipal fines and fees would increase over 30% from the previous year’s amount to $1.92 million; the court exceeded that target, collecting $2.11 million. In its budget year for fiscal year 2013, the City budgeted for fines and fees to yield $2.11 million; the court exceed that target as well, collecting $2.46 million.”
9.) A February 2011 report from Ferguson’s finance director included a chart comparing Ferguson’s code fines with those of nearby cities. “The chart noted, for example, that while other municipalities’ parking fines generally range from $5 to $100, Ferguson’s is $102. The chart noted also that the charge for ‘Weeds/Tall Grass’ was as little as $5 in one city but, in Ferguson, it ranged from $77 to $102.”
10.) The DOJ “found instances in which the court charged $203 for a single Manner of Walking violation; $427 for a single Peace Disturbance violation; $531 for High Grass and Weeds; … The court imposes these fines without providing any process by which a person can seek a fine reduction on account of financial incapacity.”
The DOJ report covers a lot more law-enforcement ground than the municipal code. Use-of-force patterns, for instance, get considerable review. But these 10 excerpts should be enough to show that Ferguson City Hall 1.) viewed its citizens as sources of easy cash, 2.) deemed code violations as the best way to balance the city budget, 3.) almost certainly knew the day was fast approaching when this funding model wouldn’t sustain a fragile budget in a town in steep economic decline.
CITY OF FERGUSON DOCUMENTS
What is Ferguson? Here are 10 items from the City of Ferguson website that give us a hint:
1.) The population was an estimated 21,111 in 2013. The place had nearly 29,000 people in 1970, but has been shrinking rather consistently ever since. The city is 6.2 square miles in size. That means Ferguson has about 3,400 people per square mile. Fresno, considered to be the essence of sprawl, has about 4,500 people per square mile. Ferguson has 54 sworn police officers (one per 390 people). Fresno has about 710 sworn officer (about one per 720 people).
2.) Ferguson is located in a sea of small towns near St. Louis. That might explain why Ferguson has such an odd shape. Imagine the state of Wisconsin with the upper peninsula of Michigan. That’s roughly the shape of Ferguson -- a main body with a hook of land to northeast. Ferguson’s shape must cause big headaches to city’s public-safety and economic-development officials.
3.) Ferguson’s 2013-2014 Comprehensive Annual FInancial Report (CAFR) showed the city with fund balances totalling $19.2 million and long-term debt totalling $21.7 million. The reserves took a hit of more than $6 million in the previous year. Long-term debt also went down (by $2.2 million in the previous 12 months) and no additional debt was taken on.
4.) The DOJ report notes that the City of Ferguson in Fiscal Year 2013-2014 issued nearly 50% more citations than in Fiscal Year 2010-2011. The most recent Ferguson CAFR might offer part of an explanation. This CAFR notes that the Ferguson police department issued 15,000 citations in Fiscal Year 2010-2011. No tickets were issued in that year by “Camera Enforcement” -- Ferguson’s red-light camera program. The program started Sept. 22, 2011. It was going full speed in FY 2013-2014. According to the Ferguson CAFR, Ferguson police officers issued 14,590 tickets in FY 2013-2014 while the city’s “Camera Enhancement” program issued 11,867 tickets -- for a total of 26,457 tickets. So, you can view these statistics two different ways. Ferguson’s police department saw the number of tickets it issued rise 76.9% from FY 2010-2011 to FY 2013-2014. But the number of tickets issued by Ferguson police officers actually dropped 2.7% over that four-year span. Here’s another statistic from the Ferguson CAFR. Ferguson police officers wrote 18,363 tickets in Fiscal Year 2007-2008 compared to 14,590 tickets written by Ferguson police officers in FY 2013-2014, a drop of 20.5%.
5.) Here are two more crime statistics involving the Ferguson CAFR. The Ferguson police department in FY 2009-2010 recorded 1,100 reported crimes in a population of 22,406. The department in FY 2013-2014 recorded 1,467 reported crimes in a population of 21,111. Reported crimes in that time span rose 33.4% while the population fell 5.4%. Fresno has 24 times more people than Ferguson (510,000 vs. 21,111). Fresno would have to have 35,208 reported crimes in the past year to equal proportionally Ferguson’s level of crime in FY 2013-2014. According to the Fresno police department’s website, Fresno in the 12 months of 2014 had 23,483 crimes. Fresno had 46 crimes per 1,000 people; Ferguson had 69.5 crimes per 1,000 people.
6.) The Ferguson red-light camera program started with cameras at three intersections. Now, keep in mind that Ferguson is only 6.2 square miles in size and has only 21,111 people. How is it possible for police (and cameras) to write more than 26,000 code violation tickets in 12 months? The geography of the metropolitan area that includes Ferguson gives us a hint. Ferguson is in St. Louis County. This county does not include the nearby City of St. Louis. St. Louis County is 524 square miles in size (about 1/12th the size of Fresno County; about four times the size of the Fresno-Clovis metro area). St. Louis County has one million people living in dozens of small, tightly-packed towns. Bellefontaine Neighbors, Berkeley, Hazelwood, Jennings, Overland, University City and Florissant are just a few of the towns that sit in proximity to Ferguson the way Downtown, Uptown, Tower District, Van Ness Village, Fresno High, Old Van Ness and Fig Garden Village sit in relation to each other in Fresno. I don’t know how many of those 26,457 tickets delivered in one year by the Ferguson PD landed in the hands of people who didn’t live in Ferguson.
7.) One other point on Ferguson’s red-light camera program, with its cameras at three intersections. Fresno once had a red-light camera program. It started in 2001 with a pilot program and featured cameras at three intersections: Herndon and Blackstone avenues, Herndon and First Street, First and McKinley Avenue. Make that area into a rectangle and its size would be about the same as Ferguson’s six square miles. Officials at Fresno City Hall in 2001 said the program was mainly to save lives. Perhaps. I was there. The traffic statistics these officials used to justify the program were squishy at best. The real reason Fresno City Hall started the red-light camera program was money. The Dot Com bubble had just burst, and the economy everywhere was on the ropes. Fresno was looking for every cent it could find. The private-sector operator of Fresno’s red-light camera system promised to generate 51,246 citations per year. This was to produce annually $13.8 million in fines, of which Fresno’s general fund would get $1.1 million per year. The Fresno system in the early months of the pilot program was actually producing less than one ticket per day. Still, Fresno City Hall in 2002 entered into a three-year deal with the system operator. Fresno police officers in late 2005 told the City Council the contract should not be renewed. Fresno police officials said the system was generating between $15,000 and $20,000 a year for the general fund, not $1.1 million. Fresno’s motorists got the hint. Ferguson’s red-light camera intersections must get a lot of motorists who don’t know Ferguson’s ways.
8.) Here are more statistics from Ferguson’s CAFR: 1.) The city has a non-PD code enforcement division. Ferguson in FY 2007-2008 made 2,781 abatements. The city in FY 2013-2014 made 2,114 abatements; 2.) Ferguson’s median household income was $50,108 in FY 2007-2008. It dropped to $36,645 in FY 2012-2013 and rose to $37,517 in FY 2013-2014; 3.) Ferguson’s unemployment rate in FY 2013-2014 was 6.9%; 4.) An estimated 25% of Ferguson’s residents live below the poverty level; 5.) The CAFR lists 12 principal employers in Ferguson. At the top is the Ferguson-Florissant School District with 1,990 employees. Emerson Electric, a Fortune 500 company that was founded in Ferguson, is second with 804. The local community college is third with 762. What about the other nine on the list? They include Home Depot, Cracker Barrel restaurant, a Walgreens store and (at Nos. 10 and 11) separate McDonald’s restaurants.
9.) The City of Ferguson is not included on that list of principal employers. Ferguson in 2014 had 141 full-time equivalent employees. The police department had 54 sworn officers, a figure unchanged for seven years. City of Ferguson employees in the past year received a 3% annual raise. Ferguson had 69.15 miles of streets in 2005. It had 69.15 miles in 2014. It had 1,117 street lights in 2005. It had 1,117 street lights in 2014. It had 41.52 miles of sidewalks in 2005. It had 41.52 miles of sidewalks in 2014.
10.) Ferguson, like any American city, has no shortage of land-use plans. The Downtown Strategic Development Plan aims to revitalize a one-and-a-half-mile stretch of Florissant Road, the city’s “main business thoroughfare.” Downtown Ferguson’s strengths include “Committed residents, businesses, and City.” Downtown Ferguson’s weaknesses include “junkyard appearance.” Downtown Ferguson’s threats include “Image of nearby communities,” “Demographic profile” and “”Reluctance to accept change.” Ferguson’s general plan is titled “Vision 2015.” It was adopted in 1995 and updated in 1998. The 17-year-old plan explains Ferguson’s declining population as “the result of fewer persons per household.”
Ferguson, Missouri has few easy or simple options for growth and rejuvenation. It has more than 21,000 residents. Ferguson’s fate is in the hands of its municipal government and its residents. That’s where code enforcement comes in.
CODE ENFORCEMENT IN FERGUSON AND FRESNO
City government is all about stability.
The U.S. Department of Justice devotes 13 pages at the end of its report to recommendations for regaining civic stability in Ferguson. The chapter is titled: “Changes Necessary to Remedy Ferguson’s Unlawful Law Enforcement Practices and Repair Community Trust.”
The chapter has two sections -- Ferguson’s police department and its municipal court.
For example, the police department should “(d)evelop community partnerships to identify crime prevention priorities, with a focus on disconnected areas, such as Ferguson’s apartment complexes, and disconnected groups, such as much of Ferguson’s African-American youth.”
The municipal court should have something other than fines for violators of Ferguson’s code. For example, the court should “(d)evelop and implement a specific process by which a person can enroll in a payment plan that requires reasonable periodic payments….That process should also include a means for a person to seek a reduction in their monthly payment obligation in the event of a change in their financial circumstances.”
Code enforcement in Ferguson will never again be the same.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin also is aggressively pursuing civic stability in Fresno. In their own way, the challenges she faces are just as daunting as those in Ferguson. The government’s enforcement -- or non-enforcement -- of a municipal code that sets the basic rules for a just society is at the core of Swearengin’s effort.
Take a look at what’s on Swearengin’s plate.
We’ll start with the 2035 general plan. This plan chock full of goals and aims. It’s now a fundamental part of Fresno’s code.
The plan promises to move Fresno well along the way to fixing five big problems. These include high concentrations of poverty, deteriorating inner-city neighborhoods and sprawl.
How is Swearengin to do this? Her answers include higher-density living in inner-city neighborhoods at the same time these neighborhoods are revitalized, making them more livable for the people already there and more attractive to people looking for a place to live in Fresno. This combination will collectively raise incomes and standards of living, this plan promises. But we humans can be an ornery lot. We like to do as we please. That’s fine and dandy as long as everyone in a neighborhood is ornery in the same way. That’s seldom the case in any city, be it Fresno or Ferguson.
Remember Mark Scott? He was the hometown fella (Fresno High School, Class of 1967) who replaced Andy Souza in early 2010 as Fresno’s city manager.
The Great Recession may have been officially over in the eyes of economists, but the financial pain was just beginning to devastate Fresno City Hall.
Swearengin in October 2010 prepared the public for a series of mid-year budget workshops by proposing to eliminate up to 40 jobs, most of them filled. “Many,” I wrote at the time, “are in the city’s code enforcement department.”
Events at the time seemed to move at the speed of light. The planning department got an overhaul and was renamed the Development and Resource Management (DARM) department. Some of the laid-off code enforcement officers said they got the heave-ho in retaliation for their union loyalty. Scott decided he’d save money by being DARM director as well as city manager. It was in this scary period of late 2010-early 2011 that the administration and the city council talked code enforcement philosophy.
It went like this.
There’s lots of code out there. If you live in a house, don’t leave your trash cans on the front porch for weeks on end. If you live in an apartment, don’t disturb the neighbors by letting your dog bark all night. If you own a string of rental houses, don’t become a slumlord by letting the places deteriorate. The code at times seems endless.
Some folks at council meetings (in the audience and on the dais) had a solution to the code enforcement division’s financial troubles: Give code enforcement officers a big stack of ticket books, then let ‘em loose on Fresnans rich and poor.
This attitude (call it the Ferguson Fix) drove Scott nuts.
Scott in March 2011 announced several major organizational changes. They included a renaming of the code enforcement division. It would now be called community revitalization. There would be fewer code enforcement officers. They would have a new approach to enforcing code, especially in neighborhoods.
As I wrote at the time: “That means residents probably can expect fewer citations for minor code violations. Instead, Scott said, the city will try a gentler approach: public education, moral persuasion, non-threatening letters, or maybe just a friendly reminder in person, delivered with a warm smile.”
Scott said the result would be better neighborhoods.
“We’re trying to help people help themselves,” he said.
Scott went further in a city memo that was the basis for a Bill McEwen column in late March 2011.
“Due to disorganization and the heavy focus on revenue, many employees feel we have lost track of our ‘mission,’” Scott wrote. “Revenue production matters as a means of accomplishing city goals, but it is not a mission in and of itself.”
Code enforcement took a back seat to other matters for about 20 months. The issue returned with a vengeance in late 2012 when the federal Housing and Urban Development Department released a scathing review of the city’s dysfunctional housing division.
Among HUD’s biggest beefs: More than $5 million of federal development funds spent by City Hall in questionable manner on code enforcement. HUD officials told City Hall to either prove the millions weren’t wasted or repay Uncle Sam for every penny.
Code enforcement debate at City Hall then moved to the back burner. Things got hot again in July 2014 when City Attorney Doug Sloan (at the council’s order) went to the public microphone in the council chamber to introduce a change to code enforcement policy.
Fresno had never seen anything like this.
The plan was to empower anyone and everyone in Fresno to be her own code enforcement officer. The bill identified 14 categories of public nuisances (trash, weeds, barking dogs, blighted buildings, etc.). Someone upset with a particular nuisance in a neighbor’s yard could initiate a legal procedure that would end in something akin to a court hearing.
If the hearing officer agreed with you (the person filing the complaint), the code violator paid a fine plus city costs (such as abatement and anything connected to the hearing). If your complaint proved to be groundless, you paid the entire bill.
The key idea of the bill was giving City of Fresno code-enforcement authority to the average citizen. It was a stunning transfer of stunning power.
The council approved the introduction of the bill. Over the next week or so, I got a fair number of calls from Fresnans who could hardly wait to take advantage of the bill’s powers. The callers said they were sick and tired of neighbors destroying the neighborhood’s quality of life with code-violating behavior. The callers said they were sick and tired of calling City Hall with their complaints, only to be told there was nothing to be done. Or, the callers said, they were told the city would get right on the problem -- then nothing happened.
Well, those callers had their hopes dashed. The council apparently had second thoughts about giving Fresnans such power over code enforcement. The bill was quietly tabled by the council. It remains on that table, gathering dust.
Then Swearengin and the City Council created a code enforcement task force. The members include administration officials, advocates for the poor, housing-industry executives and Council Members Oliver Baines, Clint Olivier and Paul Caprioglio.
The task force is to come up with a comprehensive plan for code enforcement. This plan is to complement the 2035 general plan and the new development code coming down the pike.
I was invited several months ago to attend one of the task force’s meetings. It appeared that the task force’s mission is divided into parts. The first part is figuring out what to do with so-called slumlords, individuals or companies owning many deteriorating buildings. The thinking (in part) is that it’s next to impossible to get the middle class to move into inner-city neighborhoods if those neighborhoods are full of vacant houses with plywood over the windows and two-foot-tall grass in the front yard.
I hear through the grapevine that the task force and Swearengin are close to publicly presenting their first code enforcement report. If the meeting I attended is any indication, the report may include provisions that make it fairly easy for City Hall to foreclose on properties left to deteriorate. I get a sense certain real-estate investors see a chance to get someone else’s property for a song, thanks to City Hall’s authority to determine code.
What’s unclear to me is whether the task force will also tackle the issue raised by the Doug Sloan bill of mid-2014 -- violations by individual Fresnans of the public nuisance code.
Finally, there’s the March 5 council meeting.
The Swearengin administration presented two bills connected to code enforcement. Both dealt with the process for appealing a code violation.
Let’s say you have a big pile of trash in your front yard. That’s a code violation. The city comes to your house and says, “Get rid of the trash.” You ignore repeated warnings. The city then removes the trash at public expense and sends you a two-part bill: A fine for the trash plus the cost of removing the trash (abatement).
For the sake of argument, let’s say the fine is $100 and the abatement costs were $400. You have in your hand a bill for $500. You decide to appeal the bill, saying (for example) you don’t actually live at that site and don’t own the property. Well, it turns out the city has been getting a lot of such appeals. And it turns out the hearing officer, a man named Ed Johnson, has been waiving and/or reducing the fines and city costs (this is what City Hall tells me).
This angered the Swearengin administration. Johnson, officials said, was making city taxpayers subsidize the misbehavior of code violators.
The two bills introduced on March are designed to fix this.
The first bill requires the person filing the appeal to make a deposit before the hearing for the full amount of fine, any abatement costs and cost of the hearing. The hearing then would proceed. If the person wins, she gets her check back. If she loses, well, City Hall already has her money in hand.
The second bill requires the hearing officer to recover the city’s full costs (fine, abatement costs, hearing costs) should the person lose the hearing. In other words, the hearing officer loses all authority to waive or reduce the bill unless the appellant proves that the city didn’t actually incur the costs or that assessing the costs was illegal (fat chance of that).
The city manager could waive or reduce the appellant’s bill, but not the hearing officer.
In other words, an appeal hearing for code violators (be they Mrs. Fresno living on Social Security or Acme Serial Slumlord, Inc.) would be available only to those could afford to make a pre-hearing deposit for the full amount of potential fine and city costs or those who could convince City Hall that they’re too poor to make the full deposit. Then, once the hearing takes place, the appellant (should she lose) knows she has no chance to get any of bill reduced -- unless she can get the city manager to show her mercy.
The council on March 5 approved both bills for introduction. The vote was 7-0 on the first bill and 4-3 on the second bill. Voting no on the second bill were Steve Brandau, Esmeralda Soria and Clint Olivier.
The second bill caused a lot of strife on the council dais.
Two things in the debate stood out.
First, no one in the council chamber had the slightest idea what Hearing Officer Ed Johnson’s rulings have cost Fresno taxpayers. There were no numbers in the staff report or delivered orally by staff members on whether the subsidy is $500 per year or $500,000 per year or something in-between. There also was no sense of whether a particular group of violators is getting most of the breaks. Olivier and Soria tended to think most of the appellants are the poor. Council Member Lee Brand thought slumlords might be getting most of the subsidy.
Second, no one on the council thought such numbers and trends were important enough to seek. No one said to the administration: “Let’s postpone this debate until we get statistics and patterns.”
Strange way to do code enforcement policy.
As you can see, code enforcement is tough sledding, whether in Ferguson, Missouri or Fresno, California.
What’s a city to do in an era where just about everything dealing with proper personal (and corporate) conduct is relative and the notion of a single set of acceptable standards is deemed old-fashioned, if not discriminatory?
Ferguson, Missouri will struggle toward an answer under tragic circumstances.
Mayor Swearengin has 22 more months under much more hopeful circumstances to find an answer for Fresno.
The result might be Gov. Swearengin.