Code enforcement could shift to community development purview

Former Code Enforcement Officer Garth Hohn posts an order to not enter a building. The City of Lodi is considering shifting code enforcement from the police department to the community development department.

In the coming months, the City of Lodi’s code enforcement division may be rebranded into “code compliance” as a way to make the division sound less of a punishment arm of the city and more of a guidance team.

The rebranding is part of the process to transition the code enforcement staff from the Lodi Police Department and back to the City of Lodi’s Community Development Department.

The Lodi City Council discussed the possible transition at its Tuesday morning shirtsleeve meeting.

“We’re just trying to soften (the title) a bit,” community development director John Della Monica said. “If enforcement is necessary and citations need to be written, code enforcement will have no different of an attitude as it did in the police department. Our charge is to keep the community safe as unsafe circumstances are dealt with.”

Code enforcement had once been part of the community development department, working closely with planning, building and neighborhood services in the community improvement division, according to Tuesday’s agenda.

It was transferred to the police department in 2008, and city manager Steve Schwabauer said the reason may have been that city staff at the time thought that having code enforcement officers wear a badge might improve compliance with city codes.

The police and community development departments have been working together for the last three months to make the transition in an effort to build community involvement and expand collaborative efforts.

Lodi Police Chief Sierra Brucia said there seems to be a disconnect in supervision between the two departments code enforcement serves. On one hand, officers receive general supervision from the police department, and then they get assignments from community development.

Often times, Brucia said the messaging can be confusing.

“I wouldn't say we’re not always on the same page, but we also don’t know what each other’s roles and responsibilities are,” he said. “By consolidating supervision under one place, I think we can get a little bit of a clearer direction for the employees.”

Brucia said there are currently two vacancies in the code enforcement division, and a third is on the horizon with a pending retirement. Now is a perfect time to move code enforcement back to the city, as the vacancies will not be filled until after council makes a decision.

Della Monica said in the meantime, his department has a few building inspectors with code enforcement backgrounds, so they would be able to take on the roles of officers until positions are filled.

City building official Dennis Canright said with the rebrand to “code compliance,” the city will work with residents to bring their properties up to municipal code if there is a perceived violation.

“The goal is compliance. Some people have goal of punishment. That wouldn’t be the case here,” he said. “(The goal is) also to offer some solutions. Sometimes I think what we have in the department is a lot of people with a lot of years of experience. That are able to give some of that knowledge for compliance, and some options for people.”

Councilman Shak Khan presented statistics that were revealed at a previous council meeting, and was concerned code enforcement was not addressing all the issues brought to the city by residents.

Those statistics showed that code enforcement responded to 850 cases in 2019, and 745 cases opened in 2020 were still open. The division had closed 105 cases.

“What makes me worry, is what’s making us go slow that we’re only able to close 105 cases,” he said. “How much improvement will it bring hiring another code enforcement officer, and how fast are we going to be able to clean up?”

Khan noted a trouble spot on Central Avenue he brought to the council’s attention earlier this year. The property in question has a yard full refrigerators and debris, he said, and he has received several emails from residents about it.

Brucia said enforcement cases have been backlogged due to the division only having two full-time employees for the last several years.

“Our officers have multiple responses,” he said. “One is a proactive approach where they go out there and look for specific violations. They proactively take issue with those violations and they become some of those 745 cases. Some of them come from the city, like the Sacramento Street fire, or city hall or the council will report to us, and those go on the caseload. Some come from community development or building, where they notice issues in their own work that get forwarded to us and those get on the list. Then there are the citizen complaints and those can vary from a basketball hoop in the road to failing structures, weed abatement. The workload makes it difficult to close out cases.”

Della Monica said as the division is transferred back to his department, he is hoping for more cooperation from residents who might want to volunteer.

He said there is currently a movement in Lodi in which volunteers from the community — such as church and service groups — want to help clean some of the blight around town.

While that raises many legal and liability issues for the city, he said the plan is to have those volunteers hand informational materials to municipal code violators with free resources on how to clean up their properties.

Brucia added that before the COVID-19 pandemic, the police department’s Partners would routinely go out to the public and provide informational materials to residents in violation. The department saw an 80% compliance rate when residents were contacted by Partners, he said.

Now that California has completely reopened, the Partners are returning to duty, and Brucia said that may help with community development’s efforts to educate violators.

“Ii think this concept is good,” Mayor Alan Nakanishi said. “I like the idea of the police department and community development working together, especially with the idea of volunteers. In the past we have had churches that have gone to the Eastside and cleaned up places. And to have a conduit to get volunteers, I’m happy to have that in place.”

Staff will bring an item for action to the council at its next regular meeting, which will be in late July. The July 7 meeting has been canceled.

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