Ventura code enforcement biased, aggressive, grand jury finds
By Shane Cohn 06/21/2012
Triggered by what citizens complained was abusive and preferential treatment, a Ventura County Grand Jury investigation found that the city of Ventura’s code enforcement group engaged in biased, aggressive enforcement practices and policies for the purpose of generating revenue for the city.
The 12-page report shows that complaints to the Grand Jury were about the code enforcement staff’s handling of secondary structures, or second dwelling units, that involved “alleged aggressive enforcement actions, verbal threats, threatening documents, an uncaring and unfair appellate system, arbitrary enforcement, holding the current property owner accountable for permits not obtained for work done prior to their ownership, and the City trying to balance its budget through higher permit fees and CE (code enforcement) fines.”
Members of the Grand Jury interviewed complainants, visited their properties, reviewed related city documents and watched tapes of City Council and city planning sessions. Also, code enforcement employees from a similarly sized city in Ventura County were interviewed about their code enforcement practices. The Grand Jury found that Ventura is “more aggressive and less helpful than a comparison city in the County,” adding that the comparable city “works with property owners to find solutions to code enforcement issues.”
The report also stated that because code enforcement staff’s definition of a “substandard” unit is ambiguous, it allows the city to apply it to situations ranging from life threatening to nuisances.
There was at least one case the Grand Jury found an example of preferential treatment. The report noted that a member of the Ventura City Council, which, based on previous media reports, was Councilwoman Christy Weir, contacted code enforcement staff about her second dwelling unit, which in 2007 was not legally permitted. Code enforcement overruled the determination, and the unit was legally permitted. But when the issue resurfaced in the media in July 2011 and was once again reviewed, the decision was reversed and the original determination reimposed.
“I don’t know if that is favoritism or not,” said Weir, noting that the district attorney’s office also looked into this matter and found nothing of concern. “They treated me professionally.”
Weir’s second dwelling unit had two sets of records, one saying it was a second unit and the other said office/studio. In the end, code enforcement went with the least favorable one for Weir and she has paid about $6,000 in fees to have her second dwelling permitted.
“I’m not sure if the grand jury looked at other applicants with the same situation,” said Weir.
“Code enforcement is a job of conflict,” said Andrew Stuffler, the city’s chief building official. “We have to somehow work through the conflict toward a solution. It’s tough. There is a balance with trying to be compassionate.”
The Grand Jury recommended that the City Council “rewrite policies, procedures and practices with the purpose of reducing conflict between Code Enforcement and property owners,” redefine “substandard” to mean life safety issues and not to use code enforcement as a way to generate revenue, among other things.
The city of Ventura released a response to the report that said City Manager Rick Cole acknowledges the Grand Jury’s policy recommendations, but stands by the work of the city’s code enforcement staff.
“It should be noted that the report includes no specific example of the problems cited, nor any new information beyond the complaints publicly aired before the City Council and the Safe Housing Collaborative going back several years,” stated the city’s press release. “Those concerns have been the subject of extensive Council and staff discussion and action, which have already resulted in changes to the City’s approach in promoting and enforcing the health, safety and zoning codes. It should also be noted that despite the public play of a few complaints, the City’s approach to code compliance is compassionate and patient in working with property owners.”
To view the Grand Jury’s report, go to portal.countyofventura.org. Click on Grand jury.
To view the city of Ventura’s response, go to www.cityofventura.net.