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March 03, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 03, 2004
PALO ALTO

Code breakers causing city headaches Code breakers causing city headaches (March 03, 2004)

City criticized for not acting quicker on rule-breakers

by Bill D'Agostino

A leaky and defective roof is causing the city buckets full of problems that some believe officials have let flow through the cracks too long.

For nearly a decade, the city has tried and tried and tried to get George and Karen Bradshaw to fix the faulty roof at their home at 1042 Metro Circle, near Greer Park. The couple now owes nearly $40,000 as a result, mostly due to fees accumulated after the couple failed to meet the city's deadline to fix the roof.

The case comes as the City Council is reviewing when and how the city enforces its health, safety and aesthetic codes, an often-touchy subject because of its direct impact on residents' lives and properties. While most code enforcement cases are resolved fairly quickly and easily, a few occasionally become expensive thorns in the city's side. The Bradshaws' is the most extreme example.

The Bradshaws also owe an additional $100,000 for failing to properly care for another property on Ross Road. The city alleges they have not repaired substantial dry rot, and have left 15 foot tall weeds, large storage containers, worn-down vehicles and other debris outside the home for more than six years. That case came about when a neighbor complained in 1997 about the house being in "shambles."

In April, after years of numerous letters, inspections, hearings and meetings, the City Council will decide how it would like to finally resolve the couple's case.

The council could place a claim on the Bradshaws' Metro Circle property, effectively preventing the couple from selling the home unless they make the required repairs and pay the resulting fines. The council could also lower the amount the Bradshaws owe, if it determines the fines were too high.

Some city overseers, including Palo Alto's internal auditor, Sharon Erickson, believe the city has taken too long to resolve the Bradshaws' cases. In March 2003, Erickson audited the city's code enforcement and listed 17 recommendations for improving the city's procedures, including telling staff to collect any fines that were more than six months overdue.

A year after that report -- and three years after the initial deadline -- the Bradshaws' cases still have not been resolved.

"I always hope for immediate change," Erickson said. "Things move a little slower in Palo Alto than that."

In October of last year, Erickson warned the council's Finance Committee that the county's civil grand jury -- which oversees local governments -- was reviewing her audit. The city failed to act in time to prevent getting heat from the grand jury.

Last week, the oversight group of citizens issued a report telling the city to collect the outstanding fines, reiterating Erickson's message.

The grand jury's report, however, contained a few seeming inaccuracies. Among them: It was argued that by not collecting the fines, the city was giving the couple a "no-interest loan." The fees actually go up $50 every day the Bradshaws do not make the repairs.

City officials believe they have been diligently trying to get the roof fixed, and the other home repaired, in what is a highly unusual circumstance.

"The purpose isn't to collect the money, the purpose is to correct the problem," Councilman Vic Ojakian said.

The case is an anomaly. More than three-quarters of code violators fix their infringements within three months of getting warned, Erickson's audit discovered. The Bradshaws owe 98 percent of outstanding fines owed to the city, according to the grand jury report.

The city has spent more than 60 hours trying to resolve the case, according to city reports.

The Bradshaws could not be reached for comment for this story. The home at 1042 Metro Circle appeared uninhabited, with four cars in the driveway, all with expired registrations. One Mazda's registration expired in 1994. Other debris, including bookcases and loose wood, was piling up outside the home.

The city often gets publicly criticized by residents for not taking enough action against alleged violators. The council's review of the issue, in fact, stems from a resident who is suing the city for failing to do enough about a neighboring Safeway.

But sometimes, the city also gets criticized for being too hard on a violator, such as in 2002 when Palo Alto threatened legal action against a woman who kept her hedges dangerously high.

"Perhaps that's an indication we are doing the right thing," said Lance Bayer, senior assistant city attorney, who prosecutes code violations. "If you're taking criticism from both extremes, sometimes that means that what you're doing is correct."

The intense criticism also seems to reflect the desires of a community with high expectations. Since 1997, the city has stepped up enforcement of its codes by becoming more proactive, rather than merely waiting for complaints to flood in about a problem.

"As a result, we have raised the expectations of people in the community as to what we can do," Bayer said. "We aren't always able to resolve all the quality of life issues that people would like us to resolve for them."

Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at bdagostino@paweekly.com


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