City leaders vow to improve code enforcement

Council members, staff prepare for new strategies, priorities after critical audit

Palo Alto leaders pledged on Tuesday to reform the city's glitchy code-enforcement program, which according to a new audit is hampered by vague roles, confusing technology and insufficient public outreach.

The audit, which City Auditor Harriet Richardson released last week, recommended that the city set clear priorities for code enforcement; improve its data collection and upgrade its PaloAlto311 tool, a site that allows residents to file code-enforcement complaints.

The review by Richardson and Senior Auditor Yuki Matsuura, was prompted by persistent concerns from members of the council and the public about insufficient and inconsistent enforcement. The audit credits the city with resolving many code enforcement cases effectively, though it notes that its response has been hampered by "fragmented Municipal Code requirements" and staffing limitations.

The organizational fluctuations in the code enforcement program added to the confusion, with the city shifting responsibilities for leaf-blower violations from the Planning and Comunity Environment Department to police in 2005 (and then back to Planning) and swapping the code-enforcement functions between the Building and Planning divisions in the department. In addition, the city has a policy that focuses on getting compliance rather than issuing citations, which occasionally frustrates residents.

"When the code is written very clearly, it's easy for them to enforce that code," Matsuura said. "Sometimes they don't have the authority to issue the citation -- that makes it really difficult."

The city's top managers and council's Policy and Services Committee all agreed Tuesday that something needs to be done to improve code enforcement. They also acknowledged that implementing the necessary fixes won't be quick or easy. Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada, who is set to assume the city manager's role early next year, said he plans to work with the Department of Planning and Community Environment, as well as other departments with code-enforcement responsibilities, to better align everyone's functions.

"I think it's fair to say this is a situation just, in terms of how we've dealt with code issues, that has developed a great deal of complexity," Shikada said. "Perhaps, like many things in Palo Alto, it's built up over time."

As such, it will take some time for the city to address the problems identified in the audit and to set code-enforcement priorities with the council, Shikada said. Even so, he said the city's work plan in response to the audit will be "substantial," and will require, among other changes, updates to the PaloAlto311 system.

The audit noted that when residents enter a complaint into PaloAlto311, it then proceeds to the appropriate departments who then plug it into their own databases, which they use to manage the complaint (Planning, for example, uses the Accela system). Once the complaint switches to another system, PaloAlto311 marks it as "completed," which leads residents to believe that their issue has been resolved when, in fact, the city's response may be just getting started.

Deputy City Manager Michelle Flaherty called the problem with the site "a breakdown between well-intentioned efforts and unintended consequences." She and Shikada were directed by the committee on Tuesday to present a work plan in the coming months for resolving the issues identified in the audit.

Winter Dellenbach, a resident who has long urged the city to better enforce zoning violations, suggested Tuesday that the city's leadership adopt more concrete deadlines for meeting the recommendations.

"It seems like the city manager needs to set more specific corrective actions as you progress toward the target dates because it's all really vague," Dellenbach said. "I'm afraid this may lead to the inevitable march toward not making much of a meal of this.

"I think this is very much an opportunity to make what is a very important function in the city work a lot better. If we blow this opportunity, what a shame."

The four council members all agreed. Councilwoman Karen Holman, a longtime advocate for improving code enforcement, suggested that the city take a fresh look at its long-standing policy of not issuing citations, even to repeat violators.

"We want to get concurrence, but it seems like the city subsidizes repeat violators because we send staff out again and again," Holman said.

Councilman Tom DuBois concurred and said the city should set a "clear policy about code enforcement being a priority." The issue, he said, "goes to the heart of our social contract as a government." It also goes to the issue of "fairness," he said.

"People want a level playing field and if they feel like other people aren't following the rules it's a temptation for them to do the same," DuBois said.

DuBois also suggested that it might be time to consider getting rid of PaloAlto311, though Councilman Cory Wolbach strongly disagreed with that view, noting that he has spoken to many people who like the service. He did not dispute however, that there are "great opportunities for improvement."

Committee Chair Adrian Fine said the easiest place for the city to make an immediate difference is public outreach, whether it means posting more information about code enforcement on the city's website or making sure residents are quickly informed about the city's actions on their complaints.

"I don't think people expect every code violation to result in a fine or to be rectified completely, but they do expect a response," Fine said.


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12 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 14, 2018 at 5:19 am

Most common "code" violations that I see:

1) Smoking in public, especially around commercial areas
2) Walking Dogs without leashes
3) Gas leaf blowers

How is the city proposing to handle these?

18 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 14, 2018 at 7:28 am

While it is convenient for city leaders to blame the technology or organizational structure or the way the laws are written, they are ignoring the root cause of the problem.

When my requests for enforcement of the nonsmoking ordinance for multi-unit dwellings were ignored, I contacted then Director of Planning Hilary Gitelman who wrote me, "We do not have the resources to enforce the no smoking ordinance."

The root cause of the problem is that city leaders made a deliberate decision that they would *not* enforce the codes.

Until there is true commitment from elected and appointed officials, nothing will change.

14 people like this
Posted by Citizen Enforcement
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 14, 2018 at 8:39 am

>> Most common "code" violations that I see:

1) Smoking in public, especially around commercial areas
2) Walking Dogs without leashes
3) Gas leaf blowers

How is the city proposing to handle these?

They probably haven't a clue but these violations can easily be dealt citizens.

1) Smoking in public...snap a picture on one's smartphone & turn it in to City Hall with time/date/location. PAPD facial recognition can do the ID. Get a receipt and follow-up accordingly on the progress of the citation (if so desired).
2) For dogs without leashes...take picture and submit to Animal Services with the same info and follow-up as above.
3) Call PAPD and have them cite the gardener. Watch and monitor the response time, if any. Forward complaint to City Hall/PAPD if not addressed.

Keeping track of all non-response is the key. If residents compile a long list of non-responses and submit them to the PACC, these oversights will be brought to further light and probably published in the PA Weekly. Bad PR can sometimes work wonders.

27 people like this
Posted by Citizen Enforcement
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 14, 2018 at 8:54 am

Add parked transient RVs to the list as well. Most everyone has a camera feature on their cell phone. Take picture, submit to City Hall or PAPD with pertinent background info and take note of any inaction.

Just guessing...the pictures/reportages are probably going to get high in numbers but only after the PACC/CPA gets sick of seeing and hearing of them, will something finally be done to address the problems. Hopefully.

33 people like this
Posted by moreproblems
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 14, 2018 at 9:07 am

Also add renting out sheds and illegal additions to the list. Add stuffing your house full of tenants any where you can: multiple bunk beds/couches/patios. Add having numerous autos from the numerous tenants fill up street parking. Add rapid turnover of tenants. None of this makes sense in R-1 zoning. Even when code enforcement issues citations, they then do not follow up and there are no penalties for breaking the codes that are on the books.

26 people like this
Posted by sequoiadean
a resident of Los Altos
on Nov 14, 2018 at 10:22 am

sequoiadean is a registered user.

And why is it legal for commercial property owners, and the city, to use gas leaf blowers, while it is not allowed for residential owners? These awful machines should be banned across the board, not just for residential property.

35 people like this
Posted by JCP
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 14, 2018 at 10:58 am

JCP is a registered user.

More hot air from City Hall. Castilleja has been violating their permit for 17 years and the City encouraged it. Jim Keene had his ego stroked by being asked to give a civics class at the school, and he capitulated with no enforcement of their repeated violations.

The school likes to flaunt this in the face of the neighbors with more than 100 events per year while other private schools in PA can have no more than 10 per year. It's a joke.

13 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 14, 2018 at 11:04 am

Annette is a registered user.

Enforcement = revenue source? Win-win?

8 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 14, 2018 at 11:26 am

Leaf blowers are easy. Take a photo of leaf blower dude in front of identifiable house and have the cops send a $100 citation to the owner. Problem solved.

18 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 14, 2018 at 11:35 am

The City has a lot of codes which are blatantly broken and sometimes because people don't even know there is such a code.

Parking on streets on street sweeping day, off leash dogs, gas blowers, smoking in parks, landscaping that blocks sight lines at corners and block sidewalks, parking half on/half off sidewalks, noisy construction that starts too early or ends too late, noise past 11.00 pm, single family homes that have widened their driveway to twice original size and the fact that this reduces street parking, barking dogs, street sweepers that sweep before 8.00 am when cars are still parked on the street, etc. etc. etc. Anybody care to add to the list.

So are we talking about these code violations? Or just a select few?

8 people like this
Posted by MLB
a resident of another community
on Nov 14, 2018 at 1:22 pm

"And why is it legal for commercial property owners, and the city, to use gas leaf blowers, while it is not allowed for residential owners? These awful machines should be banned across the board, not just for residential property."

The Bay Area Gardeners Association has fought to preserve the use of gas leaf blowers in residential and commercial areas. Gas-powered leaf blowers are effective and fast + they have improved muffler systems. Time is money and to rake leaves and debris is too time consuming. And using water to rinse off sidewalks is wasteful.

It is a professional tool designed for professionals. They should not be allowed for home owner usage...just professionals.

Blowing the leaves and dirt onto the curb eliminates having to pick it up and when the wind blows it into another resident's front yard or lawn, their gardener can simply blow it somewhere else. Problem solved.

6 people like this
Posted by safety
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 14, 2018 at 7:18 pm

Code enforcement should handle all of these listed above. Having the police enforce the arbitrary social norms enacted by the citizenry, that change from one minute to the next (look into the history of the RV's when it comes to city laws), is a waste of time and resources. Not to mention who the poeple are that are actually penalized by these citations...

11 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 15, 2018 at 9:34 am

traffic is tied up end to end in the city. There is no housing available except to millionaires. And all the City is trying to fix is Leaf Blower noise.

Forgodsakes, lets get our priorities straight.

1 person likes this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of University South
on Nov 15, 2018 at 10:16 am

@Abitarian: I think its really sleazy to hide behind an anonymous name, yet feel it's appropriate to call out a city staff member by name.

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 16, 2018 at 3:05 am

the_punnisher is a registered user.

City codes are not LAWS, they are only social agreements, that is why they cannot be law. Palo Alto used codes to enforce RED-ZONING, which Palo Alto enforced, even after the Civil Rights movement which made such LAWS illegal ( but NOT such city codes illegal )

The rule of LAW and not MEN is what this CONSTITUTIONAL REPUBLIC ( NOT A DEMOCRACY ) is why it took so long after July 4, 1776 to get enough agreement to decide what government was to be created. EVERYONE HAD TO COMPROMISE to get our form of government in +1789.

I got my MANDATORY Civics course at the OLD MVHS on Castro St. Our teacher made it HARD to pass this pass/fail course. These lessons apply today, just as they did back in 1973 when I graduated.

Several important changes recently have changed the duties of police officers. THE SCOTUS ruling in Castle Rock vs Gonzales said " THE POLICE DID NOT HAVE TO PROTECT HER OR HER CHILDREN ".

That means your police officers don't have to enforce ANY laws, which is why California IS a sanctuary State. They do not have to do anything, as was in the case of the Florida mass shootings in that school.

I notice a bit of vigilante here. Shame the CC into doing something. Hey, just go ahead and cross that line AND ENFORCE YOUR CODES YOURSELVES. Up to 2012, California WAS an Open Carry State. But now that your cops don't have to enforce laws or codes, Californians can make and enforce ANY laws or codes. One of the world leaders you may embrace said " power springs forth from the barrel of a gun ". So use that power to clean up Palo Alto. Just walk up to an offender and you don't need to have a camera in your phone. Just open carry your " peacemaker " and tell that noisy leaf blower operator that you are disturbing MY peace and I DON'T LIKE THAT. If they continue, make that person " dance to your tune " to make sure they get your message loud and clear.

Now that I have concluded this thought experiment, you see the way a country of " LAWS not MEN " works. I note that a SANCTUARY STATE means MO rule of law exists in California and you police are not obliged to to anything. By the same meaning, the FEDERAL Government is not obliged to do anything in California, like helping to stop the wildfires that have ravaged California, or help when " The Big One " hits.
There are consequence for behavior, even outside your small problems.
Anybody who is a " rocket scientist " should check out the real " man made global warming " from the THREE core meltdowns at the TEPCO Fukushima dai-ichi power plant. Chernobyl was just ONE core meltdown and we still have damage from ONE core meltdown. Fortunately, WE don't have to deal with it, only the EU has to. We don't have to deal with the Tepco Fukushima dai-ichi meltdowns, they are far away in Japan..but they are NOT so far away. Anyone checked the temperature and radiation levels of the Humboldt Current lately? I have SCUBA dived, swam and surfed in the Coastal Areas for decades, and now I cannot anymore.

That puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

16 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 16, 2018 at 8:43 am

Online Name is a registered user.

So what's the CC and city "management" doing about the fact that the guy who's supposed to be managing these systems and other boondoggles? (Their recent "launch" of a system alerting us to construction projects around town never worked and they never responded to requests for feedback and then finally they stopped sending announcements about it. Poof went the project and the $$$$$ spent developing it.)

Complaint accuses Palo Alto’s top tech official of taking 28 junkets paid by firms linked to city business
United Neighbors member files ethics complaint against chief information officer over trips

Web Link

Palo Alto’s top technology official violated California’s gifts law by taking at least 28 all-expense-paid trips funded by companies tied to telecommunications firms that do business with the city, according to a complaint filed with the state."

In her filing with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Jeanne Fleming of United Neighbors contends Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental took illegal trips totaling 114 days between 2013 and 2017. United Neighbors is a group of local resident who unsuccessfully fought the City Council’s approval last year of a Verizon Wireless project to install 11 cell towers in the Midtown, South of Midtown, St. Claire Gardens and Palo Verde neighborhoods.

10 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 16, 2018 at 9:08 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Today's update from the SJ Merc Web Link

"City Manager James Keene defended Reichental’s travel, saying in an interview that he takes the trips on his own time and never receives compensation for his involvement in the conferences. Reichental, who oversees a department of more than 30 and reports directly to the city manager, was not immediately available for comment. City staff said he was on vacation.

“I have the utmost confidence in the professional ethics of our chief information officer,” Keene said. “As long as we can keep him working for our city government with the talents and the perspective he has, we are way ahead of the curve......"

"Councilman Tom DuBois, who is aware of Fleming’s complaint, said he has asked the city attorney to look into the matter.

“Even if the trips were all on vacation, there’s a question of, you’re working for the city of Palo Alto, where’s your focus? Are you focusing on your job?” DuBois said Tuesday. “It looks troubling, but I kind of want to get the full story."

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2018 at 9:21 am

There is a big problem with this. If a gardener is told he has to use a rake, he will take twice as long. It will mean that if he has to stay on schedule he will do a poorer job. If he takes longer he will charge more, and perhaps as a result he may be asked to come once every two weeks instead of every week. He just may lose work out of this.

When the minimum wage was hiked, house cleaners were asked to come once every two weeks instead of every week. They may have earned more money per hour, but they lost half their work.

For every action that sounds good, there is a downside.

"For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Newton.

4 people like this
Posted by electric leafblowers
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 16, 2018 at 2:04 pm

electric leafblowers is a registered user.


Do you not know that the gardeners can use electric/battery leaf blowers?

No one is mandating that yards have to be raked by hand.

It is the fumes from the gas blowers that is so objectionable to the neighbors.

8 people like this
Posted by MLB
a resident of another community
on Nov 16, 2018 at 2:49 pm

>It is the fumes from the gas blowers that is so objectionable to the neighbors.

That is because some are powered by two-stroke engines which burn oil as part of the combustion process. Palo Alto should consider allowing only allow 4-stroke leaf blowers to be used if residents have an issue with the fumes. Or residents can wear respirators when their gardener is in progress. Tough luck for pedestrians and bicyclists passing by but that's their problem. The only drawback is that 4-stroke leaf blowers are heavier for the gardener to carry and some don't like the extra weight.

I have advised my contracted staff to use push vacuums (gas-powered) in lieu of leaf blowers. The vacuums actually pick the debris but disposing the contents poses an issue as some municipal dump yards have now closed.

As a result, most opt for leaf blowers and simply blow the debris into a neighbor's curb or front yard. Then that neighbor's gardener transfers it to another neighbor's.

This is a landscape maintenance practice that have served professional gardeners well as there are no disposal issues and everyone is happy except the last neighbor in line.

10 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 16, 2018 at 2:56 pm

From the article:

"'I have the utmost confidence in the professional ethics of our chief information officer,' [City Manager Jim] Keene said."


Mr. Keene is hardly in a position to judge the professional ethics of others, certainly not after he has been embroiled in a number of ethical lapses himself, perhaps most notably, secret dealings with developer John Arrillaga concerning 27 University Avenue and Foothills Park.

The pervasive lack of integrity at City Hall is appalling. Thank you, city council member Tom DuBois for your steady courage in speaking to this issue.

Hopefully, the new mayor and city manager will take steps to address this moral deficit in 2019.

4 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2018 at 3:38 pm

Posted by electric leafblowers, a resident of Evergreen Park

>> Do you not know that the gardeners can use electric/battery leaf blowers?

City parks contractor is using Greenworks Commercial GBB 700.

Web Link

I'm not sure what kind of recharging setup they use, but, Greenworks has a nice battery-swapping dual-battery configuration. I'm sure they need a number of extra batteries to get through the day.

8 people like this
Posted by Pro Gas Leaf Blower
a resident of another community
on Nov 16, 2018 at 5:07 pm

Gas leaf blowers are better. Faster and more power. If PA residents don't like them, dismiss the gardener and rake your own leaves (or use one of those electric leaf blowers). Fat chance of that ever occurring.

4 people like this
Posted by Alison
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 20, 2018 at 6:31 am

It takes endless hours, tax payer money to constantly put notices on cars/trucks/campers/trailers parked for longer than than the City of Palo Alto's 72-hour parking policy limit. After two notices, issue a ticket to the illegally parked vehicle... why doesn't this happen?

Vehicles and campers have been parked in the spot/location on El Camino Real between Los Robles and Maybell Ave for 2 weeks and there is no enforcement of the 72-hour limit.

VTA oversized/double-sized and Stanford Marguerite buses, UPS trucks, cement trucks, durt hauler trucks (due to all the construction), cars, etc., need to drive in TWO LANES TO GET PAST THE CAMPERS/TRAILERS PARKED ON EL CAMINO.

A number of pre-schools, elementary and high schools are located in the area from Matadero down past Maybell Avenue.

On this stretch of El Camino Real, bicyclists riding on El Camino, are squeezed between the campers parked on El Camino and vehicles traveling on this road. It's a dangerous stretch of road. Kids biking to school will not be so lucky, and only then will something be done to alleviate this problem.


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