James Stephens, hired in early 2016 to augment the city's two-person enforcement team, is gregarious, professional and fluent in the ways of the municipal code. Having worked in Simi Valley and San Luis Obispo, he understands well why code enforcers often get a bad rap.
The officers deal with all the most vexing issues of the day — zoning violations, gas-powered leaf blowers, too much construction noise, etc. — and are often seen by residents as the last line of defense in resolving problems. This is in part because officers often get their cases from other departments — whether public works or utilities — and by the time an issue gets to them, months have passed and the complainant is exasperated.
Admittedly, there are also times when inter-departmental cooperation runs less than smoothly, to everyone's frustration. Terry Holzemer, a resident of the Palo Alto Central condominiums, experienced this firsthand last month, when a developer who was constructing a basement for a new commercial building at 2555 Park Blvd. began to run a diesel-powered generator all day and night for about two weeks. It took a "Herculean effort," multiple visits by the police and interference by three council members to finally resolve the situation, Holzemer told the council on June 27.
"One of the officers even suggested that we contact the code-enforcement people," Holzemer said. "And they in turn sent me an email saying I should contact the police."
Another strike against code enforcement is that the work is often thankless — literally. When code-enforcement officers don't get the results the residents seek, they are pilloried for being too lax; when they do, their efforts are largely unsung (no one ever comes to a council meeting to gush about all the leaf blowers they don't hear).
Then, too, some situations are no-win: Palo Alto's code enforcement unit probably didn't earn too many fans in June, when it ordered New Mozart Music School to vacate a space inside a North California Avenue church that it had occupied for more than a decade. The reason? Music schools are not a permitted use in residential neighborhoods.
There's also a built-in ceiling to officers' popularity. Code enforcers aren't firefighters or librarians; they won't heal your pet, build you a playground or track down your purse-snatcher. And even if they perform their duties perfectly, they will inevitably leave someone (usually, the violator) fuming and invite potential litigation.
"The minute we go to a more stringent enforcement, we're going to get that kind of pushback," Stephens said. "But you try to walk that fine line."
For a team that consists of just three people, Palo Alto's code enforcers have been facing an unprecedented level of public scrutiny of late.
More than perhaps any other City Hall program, code enforcement is a custom-built operation that mirrors its community.