One of the hot political issues of the past election campaign was that of code enforcement. The City Council understood the searing heat of this issue when it held a pre-election council meeting on this topic alone, in the auditorium of Pt. Dume School, and listened to a sizable group of very outraged citizens vent their frustration at what they saw as a very heavy-handed and uneven enforcement of the Malibu building and zoning laws. The council then did what political groups always do when faced with this kind of anger–it formed a committee. The committee is the Code Enforcement Task Force, made up of 15 citizens, three appointed by each council member. The purpose of the group was to find out what the problem was and to report back with recommended changes. The council gave them a specific enumerated list of things to look at, but it was also careful to empower the group to go where their investigation took them.
Up to this point they were doing fine–except for one very large problem.
The problem was, they assigned the Building and Safety Department and the code enforcement officer, who is part of the safety department, to essentially staff the task force. This means, as a practical matter, when the task force needs information from the city, it gets it through its liaison or resource person, who just happens to be the very same person who is part of the subject of the inquiry.
Why is this bad?
Because there are lots of things that could be wrong with our code enforcement policy.
It could be our zoning code. There seems to be general agreement among all concerned that the Malibu zoning code, to put it mildly, stinks. It’s internally inconsistent, has little relationship to the reality of Malibu. It creates a set of rules that were mainly put there to block development, any kind development, whether it be a single-family home or a commercial development, whether new construction or renovation. When many of us got apprehensive about the zoning code, we were told “don’t worry about it, it only applies to new development, you’re grandfathered in.”
Recent history has shown those assurances were less-than-candid and, in fact, one of the things the task force is examining is the issue of grand-fathering.
But there are also other possibilities.
It may not be just the code alone that is the problem. It may be the way the code is being enforced that is the problem. Maybe the policies set by the Building and Safety Department or by the code-enforcement people, and the manner in which they are doing their job, is the problem. Then again, maybe not. Do we have the right people doing the job of code enforcement? In this inquiry, it is, or certainly should be, a perfectly legitimate question to ask.
There is one thing I know for certain–whoever gets to staff an investigation has a large say in shaping the outcome; particularly where you have a group of citizens who only meet for a few hours each week to deal with an issue.
I’ve watched several meetings of this task force, and I can say its members are going about their charge very conscientiously. However, until they are staffed by someone outside the Building and Safety Department, who reports directly to the city manager, anything they come up with is suspect.
The question I’m posing is this–If changes are necessary, is Vic Peterson, director of Building and Safety, the person to carry out those changes? Or is he, in fact, part of the problem?
Likewise, is the code enforcement officer, Gail Sumpter, part of the solution or part of the problem?
In all fairness, city manager Harry Peacock thinks I’m being unfair to Peterson and Sumpter, because he says they’re just doing their job and enforcing a code that I happen to think is a disaster. Perhaps he’s right, but I must say I’m skeptical.
I want to see an objective reasoned answer from the task force as to what’s the problem and what are the solutions without the undue influence of the staff being involved in those solutions.
I think it is incumbent upon the City Council to insist that this task force be staffed or resourced, or whatever term they want to use, by someone who is not directly involved and whose job status may not be directly affected by outcome of the inquiry.
The simple fact is that people can’t investigate themselves. If this is to be a fair inquiry, then the Building and Safety Department should not participate in the inquiry.
Secondly, while the Code Enforcement Task Force is doing its work, the City Council should adopt a limited moratorium on enforcement unless it is something that has a serious, immediate effect on public safety. Sort of declare a temporary time-out, until we see which way we ultimately want to go.