CityWatch, Sept 27, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 77
RETHINKING LA - When City Hall starts a conversation by invoking a recap of “these challenging economic times” you can count on another cut to city services, another increase in fees and fines, or a combination of both.
The City Attorney’s proposed Administrative Citation Enforcement (ACE) program is a classic example of the City’s commitment to balancing the budget on the backs of the public while reprioritizing the delivery of city services that can be monetized.
LA’s proposed ACE program is positioned as a “broken windows” solution to crime prevention that also decriminalized minor code violations and allows LA’s residents to simply pay administrative fines for their wicked ways, thus avoiding the burden of due process and judicial oversight.
This hollow commitment to crime prevention and compassionate enforcement is a transparent and thinly disguised attempt to generate revenue at the expense of those who can afford it the least.
The “broken windows” theory of crime prevention was first presented by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling in an article titled “Broken Windows” that offered this example:
“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.”
If the City Attorney is a true believer in the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention, surely we can expect the ACE program to also focus on the people responsible for the broken streets of LA and the broken sidewalks of LA. But this is not the case.
The City Attorney’s “broken windows” argument is a red herring that distracts the public from the larger failings of City Hall and the ever dwindling delivery of city services, instead focusing on the residents and squeezing those who can afford it the least.
As for the notion that the proposed ACE program would decriminalize small code violations, if the City Attorney was sincere, he’d do what he’s doing now, refuse to prosecute them as crimes. But the ACE program actually treats the violations administratively, levies fees and fines, and then treats the payment of the penalty criminally, expediting the process by limiting due process.
During the Dark Ages, it was a common tradition for those on the way to the gallows to “tip the executioner” in the hope that the process would be swift and painless, in fact some even paid to have the axe sharpened.
LA’s proposed ACE program provides the City Attorney an enforcement fee, an administrative fee, and even sharpens the procedural axe so that the code enforcement process can be swift and painless, perhaps even fatal, to those who are already struggling to stay afloat financially.
LA’s proposed ACE program is the beginning of the Dark Ages for the residents of Los Angeles, an era where justice goes to those who can afford to pay while those who are already suffering in “these challenging economic times” will be subjected to liens, garnishments, and criminal prosecution, simply for failing to tip the executioner.
One of the most common justifications for the City Attorney’s scheme is the common City Hall claim that there is a legal requirement for the City to investigate all complaints and to prosecute accordingly. Yet when the CA’s office, the Council offices, and the investigating offices are challenged on this claim, none of them can produce the legal statute to support this position.
The fact is, LA’s proposed ACE program is built on a complaint driven system that is rebranded as “community policing” but in reality is the empowerment of neighbor against neighbor without the necessary checks and balances.
LA’s proposed ACE program is often compared to programs in other cities such as San Diego but no mention is made of the fact that code violation complaints went up after the implementation of their ACE program went into effect.
LA’s current complaint driven system is already out of control with no checks and balances and the proposed ACE program simply expedites the operation of a broken system.
Consider the City’s handling of four houses that sit side by side in East Hollywood, right in the middle of a gang injunction zone. The first home, the third home and the fourth home were all subjects of complaints from one neighbor for over-in-height fences. The city cracked down and levied fines ($325), fees ($550), penalties ($1925) and asked for a variance ($4800).
Meanwhile the second house is abandoned, the front yard is filled with vehicles and the building is filled with squatters. Yet the city doesn’t respond. There’s nobody to fine, no resident to pay the penalty, no funding source for inspections, no owner to pay for a variance.
The same complaining neighbor has turned in homeowners throughout the community for violations that have resulted in investigations and actions that exceed other communities by a ratio of 60 to 1. This isn’t justice or even a prioritization of public safety, it’s simply turbo-charging a complaint driven system that results in the uneven application of the law and selective prosecution.
LA’s priority is Public Safety and it is imperative that the different departments and agencies that have a piece of the public safety mandate work together.
Creating paupers out of victims who build fences to protect their homes, their property and their families is no way to address public safety, it’s a naked attempt to fund failing departments.
The current proposed ACE program has been stripped of most references to revenue generation but the truth remains, it is a classic example of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s cost recovery mandate taken to the point of absurdity.
In fact, the ACE program’s development included much debate over the revenue in the Code Compliance Fund, initially under the City Attorney’s control, now under the City Council’s control, demonstrating that the essence of the ACE program is funding.
This position was echoed at Saturday’s Congress of Neighborhoods when Ray Chan, Executive Officer of the Department of Building and Safety clearly articulated “The new fee structure helps the General Fund so the General Fund can provide funding for the function of the Department.”
Code enforcement starts at home and if City Attorney Carmen Trutanich were serious about enforcing the law, he’d start with City Hall. He would insist that the City of LA abide by the Federal mandate to bring the streets and sidewalks up to ADA compliance and he’d put the focus where it belongs, on the criminals, not on the residents.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net.)