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.