Most people don't know what Reynolds and his partner, Judy Glaes, do. Theirs is a job that, when done well, prevents hazards from turning into disasters.
Reynolds, 32, walked past two vacant lots near California Avenue Wednesday, wondering aloud how his partner will handle the workload if his job is eliminated. The pair divides the city in two. His beat covers the foothills and areas bounded by San Antonio Road, Fabian Way and west of Waverley Street. Glaes handles downtown, Midtown and east of Waverley, he said.
"We average 500 to 800 cases a year — last year we had just over 600 — and we handled 200 to 300 more that don't need to be logged in," he said, inspecting an area where he had issued an order to abate a public hazard. Metal rebar in a planting strip adjacent to a professional building had been jutting out like javelins toward the sidewalk. An elderly gentleman tripped on the 2-foot-tall encroaching metal and was nearly impaled in the throat, Reynolds said.
Whether following up on tall weeds or oversized fences, Reynolds checks out complaints large and small and then returns to places after he's already ordered a clean up.
He walked past two vacant lots near California Avenue, reflecting on the city's many hidden hazards that require constant vigilance.
"I had a limo company in a residential area that I made move out because they were parking limousines all over the street," he said. The company then moved to a warehouse that was not zoned to house limousines, he said.
Next door, there was a special-ed school.
"One night, one of the old limos caught fire. ... If that fire had happened during the school day, it would have been one of the worst disasters in Palo Alto history," he said.
Reynolds surveyed the pile of junk choking a front yard on Ramona Street. Barbecues, filing cabinets, book cases and several motorcycles filled the driveway and yard, blocking the path to the front door.
"I've issued a citation to this lady. Next will be a compliance order. If it goes to a hearing, we will charge her for city time," he said.
"Most people are cooperative and want to comply," he said, driving down an alley, where a restaurant had used a garbage-bin containment area to store food, which was not an approved use. The business fixed the problem, adding a shed, he said.
On nearly every street and alley in the city, Reynolds is likely to find at least one violation of a city code. He hopped out of his car to push an A-frame advertising sign off the sidewalk in front of Charleston Center. He keeps cans of gray spray paint and pruning shears in his trunk to take care of small amounts of graffiti and an errant overhanging branch.
But some issues are clear dangers. A man with a hoarding compulsion has repeatedly refused to clean up his yard, despite weekly citations, Reynolds said. The yard on Wednesday was covered with bicycle parts, large cardboard boxes and assorted debris reaching from the sidewalk to the door.
"At one point it reached to the top of the carport," Reynolds said. "It's a fire hazard."
Reynolds has tried to help the man, giving him weekly deadlines to clean parts of the yard so the man will not feel overwhelmed. But after two years of wrangling and coaxing, there is little progress.
Reynolds has carefully documented the trash piles in preparation for a hearing.
"We've coordinated with the fire department, and we're in the process of obtaining an abatement warrant," he said.
In less severe cases, Reynolds might give someone a week or two weeks to comply, or in some instances 30 days, depending on the circumstances, he said.
People are sometimes initially angry, he said, but Reynolds, who is working on a degree in sociology, uses a people-friendly approach.
"Our goal is to work with the public and have voluntary compliance," he said.
Seemingly small things can create big problems. Businesses are not supposed to cover their windows more than 20 percent with signs, he said.
"The police need to be able to see inside safely if the place is being robbed," he said, looking over a liquor store-market he recently ordered to remove banners advertising beer.
"In this economy, we don't want to hurt businesses, but we have to make them move the signs onto their property," he said, pointing out several A-frame signs lining the sidewalk.
Each day he "takes the scenic route," driving past places he knows to be hot spots. Cypress Lane, a no-man's land that edges Barron Park, is notorious for piles of debris and abandoned vehicles. He made note of a dusty vehicle without current registration. The police will have it towed, he said.
Reynolds then turned his inspection to the Palo Alto Hills.
"We're seeing more vacant lots with the downturn in the economy," he said, checking on the progress of a weed-abatement order he gave two weeks ago. "And there are more issues with unfinished homes, as people run out of money."
Reynolds checks new construction and home-based businesses and follows up to make sure projects remain in compliance with their conditions of use. People rip out landscaping and businesses encroach on public benefits that were conditions of their construction, he said.
Not all complaints are actionable. Draining water from planters on a sidewalk did not rise to a tripping hazard and drumming at a residence was within legal noise limits.
And many problems fall within gray areas.
"The city does not have a blight ordinance," he said. Property owners can't be forced to raze burned and abandoned structures.
Reynolds pointed to a dug-up front lawn. Wisp of weeds protruded from large dirt clods. It was ugly, but it didn't break the law.
"They could leave it like that if they wanted," he said.