CityWatch, Sept 30, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 78
RETHINKING LA - “Don't worry,” said the trees when they saw the axe coming, “The handle is one of us.”
LA’s proposed Administrative Citation Enforcement (ACE) Program is positioned as a panacea capable of curing all that ails the broken City of Los Angeles, including the ongoing budget crisis, collapsing infrastructure, threats to public safety, quality of life issues, courthouse backlogs, overworked and understaffed municipal departments, and a full generation of inefficient code enforcement that has left the landscape of LA littered with billboards, pot shops, and busted sidewalks.
High horse advocates of the ACE program have become so enthralled with the idea of efficient code enforcement that they have missed the parallel journey of Council File No. 05-1853, a City Attorney initiated draft ordinance which would make residents responsible for sidewalk repair.
In other words, as the residents of LA are distracted by the promise of the proposed ACE program, the City Attorney is working to return responsibility for the city’s broken sidewalks to the property owners who will then find themselves on the enforcement end of the newly armed ACE program.
The City Attorney has a strong motivation for getting the ACE program underway and then for shifting responsibility for sidewalk repair to property owners due to the pending settlement of a class action Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit which is scheduled for court approval on October 20, 2011.
The current proposed settlement would commit the City of LA to the implementation of a 25 year plan for bringing the City of LA’s sidewalks into ADA compliance. Under current budget conditions, this is hardly a promise the City of LA can make but by shifting the responsibility of sidewalk repair to residents and then arming the City Attorney with ACE enforcement efficiency, the people of LA will soon discover that ACE is the sword that cuts both ways.
The ACE program was initially presented with strong claims of revenue enhancement potential. City Attorney presentations to community groups pointed out that currently, fines go to Sacramento but under ACE, the City of LA gets to keep the money.
Charges that the City of LA was only interested in balancing the budget on the backs of those who can afford it the least have prompted a CLA directive which clarifies that the purpose of the ACE program is to improve code enforcement, not to generate revenue. Of course, saying so doesn’t make it so, but it’s a nice gesture that is only contradicted by reality and the words of Councilmembers and Department managers.
The ACE program is billed by the City Attorney’s office as an alternative to the current system that treats municipal code violations as misdemeanors, resulting in a clogged system that currently has a backlog of 10,000 cases.
ACE is positioned as a simple administrative process of municipal code violation enforcement that will foster “timely compliance with the law in order to protect public health and safety and provide a fair and effective administration of justice.”
The proposed ACE program includes provisions for City Attorney inspectors with the authority to issue Administrative Citations for code violations that they witness. This power is buried in a draft ordinance that lacks clearly defined roles, authorities, and oversight for the proposed Enforcement Officers and is a significant weakness in a proposal that grants unprecedented power to the City Attorney’s office.
Proponents of the program have seized on ACE as a remedy to the quality of life issues that include barking dogs, loud parties, loitering, dirty sidewalks, gambling, filming without a permit, dogs on the beach, fireworks, dog defecations, and curb numbers getting painted without a permit.
Opponents of the program counter that the ACE program is complaint driven, that it results in more uneven application of the municipal code, that it results in selective enforcement of the law, and that it sacrifices due process in return for revenue generation, all at the expense of those who can afford it the least.
The judicial element of the ACE program is made up of Administrative Hearing Officers who are either under the oversight of the City Attorney’s office or completely independent of the City Attorney’s office, depending on whether you are listening to City Attorney representatives on Council Phone or on the Larry Mantle Show on KPCC. When you consider that the proposed ordinance gives the Administrative Hearing Officers subpoena authority, it seems reasonable to delay the ACE proposal until this issue is resolved.
When the Committee expressed concerns about the proposed subpoena authority, Chief Deputy City Attorney William Carter jumped quickly, too quickly in fact, to defend it by saying “this allows those charged with a citation to call witnesses.” To hear him speak, it sounds like the cited party will end up with subpoena authority. Regardless, he was unclear on whether this was at the discretion of the Hearing Officer or if it was a right of the cited party. Again, it seems reasonable to delay the ACE proposal until this issue is resolved.
At every turn, the proponents of the proposed ACE program extol the virtues of a system that “decriminalizes” Municipal Code violations, allowing residents to simply pay a fine and go on their way. Missing is a discussion of the due process that also disappears and the resulting system that limits the rights of the charged yet expands the powers of the City Attorney.
Administrative Hearings are final for the residents of Los Angeles and if the ruling is against them, “no further appeal may be filed pursuant to the provisions of this Code.” Yet if the ruling is in favor of the resident, the City Attorney can still pursue “any and all remedies provided by law.”
While the decriminalization of the actual code violation is touted as a benefit, the result is a swift journey to judgment where the failure to abide by the Administrative Order or pay the Administrative Fine is subject to “criminal remedies, civil action, injunctive relief, specific performance, and the recordation of a lien or a notice of the Administrative Violation against real property.” The penalties, coupled with the threat of enforcement, are hardly in scale with decriminalized violations. Again, it seems reasonable to delay the ACE proposal until this issue is resolved.
Charges that the proposed ACE program, as drafted by the City Attorney, is nothing more than an employment strategy with a funding stream are hard to ignore when the draft ordinance provides for the recovery of “reasonable attorney’s fees and all costs.” If the ACE proposal is truly an efficient program, the City Attorney’s office should be experiencing savings, not elbowing its way to the feeding trough in an embarrassing display of bureaucratic gluttony.
This past Monday, the proposed ACE program made another appearance at the City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, drawing a standing room only crowd that spoke passionately about the ACE program, with 16 members of the public in favor of ACE and 14 members opposed.
The City Hall spin team watched the Committee send the ACE motion back to the City Attorney for a systemic overhaul, a “continuance” that was erroneously referred to as “unanimous endorsement.” The split audience was also referred to as supportive, completely dismissing the positions of those who showed up to protest.
The proposed ACE program, as presented by the City Attorney’s office, fell far short of the City’s Chief Legislative Analyst standards, enduring 14 recommendations for adjustment from the CLA and a fairly significant round of detailed concerns from the Committee, resulting in a continuance to Monday, October 3, when the City Attorney will return with another version of the proposed ACE program.
The original motion that put the proposed ACE program in motion was made in January of 2010 by Councilman Koretz, seconded by Councilman Parks, and positioned as an opportunity to create “a more efficient and effective code enforcement program through the use of administrative citations, as an alternative to legal action.”
The long journey to this week’s continuance has been one of Budget and Finance Committee instructions and City Attorney responses, a see-saw battle that pits the original intentions of Councilman Koretz against the desires of the City Attorney’s office.
The City Attorney’s draft ordinance does not restrict, limit, or specify which Municipal Code Sections would be covered or enforceable under the ACE program, in spite of prior instructions from the Committee to specify participating departments and relevant code sections.
Councilman Englander asked Chief Deputy City Attorney Carter if the proposed ACE program applied to LA’s entire Municipal Code and he received a very quiet affirmative answer, prompting another directive to the City Attorney to prepare a list that limits and clarifies the appropriate codes.
Councilman Koretz acknowledged the concerns of the public about due process, uneven application of the law, the vulnerability of a complaint driven system, and the risk of selective prosecution, all of which prompted him to insist that the ACE program be unfolded slowly as a pilot program, an instruction that has met resistance from the City Attorney. Koretz’s final position was that the LAPD was the only department to be involved in the initial “pilot” phase and that the Housing Department and Animal Services would be the next two in line.
Committee Chair Parks acquiesced to Koretz’s suggestion that the program start slowly with the LAPD, expressing disappointment that the pilot didn’t include Housing and Animal Services, and pointing out that the current budget already included anticipated revenue from Animal Services code enforcement actions. Parks was firm in his contention that the Department of Building and Safety was an unsuitable participant in the ACE program because the department was “in a quagmire.”
Councilman Englander noted that if the City of LA is about to get busy enforcing municipal code such as the prohibition of gas powered leaf blowers, it should first start by putting an end to its own code violations, referring to the City’s use of illegal leaf blowers.
The irony to having the LAPD serve as the test pilot for the proposed ACE program is that the LAPD’s new division facilities are all built in violation of LAMC 12.21, the same section that is used to cite residents for land use violations. In fact, a significant number of people that spoke in opposition were there with complaint driven 12.21 violations that had resulted in threats of “liens, garnishment, and other legal actions” all because of over-in-height fences.
There is no doubt that the City of LA is mired in a tremendously inefficient system of code enforcement but to embrace the current ACE program is to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.
To those who stand ready to call in their neighbor for that barking dog, pause for a moment and look out the window at your sidewalk. If it is broken, remember that the sword cuts both ways and while your neighbor is muzzling his dog, you will be repaving your sidewalks.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net .)