Enforcing the code | May 7, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 7, 2010

Enforcing the code

Palo Alto budget cuts could reduce enforcement staff to one officer

by Sue Dremann

Brian Reynolds' job is on the line. Proposed Palo Alto budget cuts could shrink the city's two-person code-enforcement team down to one officer — and he would not be that one.

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.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.


Posted by rat, a resident of Downtown North
on May 6, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Does he accept tips from people who want to rat on their neighbors?

Posted by Supporter of Code Enforcement, a resident of another community
on May 6, 2010 at 9:11 pm

I'm sure he will, but he may not be able to help if he's unemployed.

Posted by Michael C., a resident of College Terrace
on May 6, 2010 at 10:02 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by cut Cut CUT!, a resident of Barron Park
on May 6, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Why can't the city fire every fifth paper pushing cubical hamster?

That would reduce labor cost by 20%.

Posted by Carol, a resident of Midtown
on May 6, 2010 at 10:32 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by David, a resident of Barron Park
on May 6, 2010 at 10:51 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Neighbor of PA, a resident of another community
on May 6, 2010 at 11:20 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Father of 3, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 6, 2010 at 11:28 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Gayle, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 6, 2010 at 11:32 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Nat, a resident of Midtown
on May 7, 2010 at 1:43 pm

I agree with Michael C above. I have written the City Council and City Manager about this cut back of code enforcement and I suggest that others write them too.

I came across code enforcement because of my daily walks around my Midtown neighborhood. Often foliage blocks the sidewalks and force people into the street, esp. those in wheelchairs or pushing a baby stroller, and also endanger blind people. Yes, I see blind people walking by themselves and sidewalk hazards are a problem. Code enforcement used to get these problems corrected more quickly than they do now. With the cutback to only one officer, nothing will get done and the City will suffer the consequences. WRITE CITY COUNCIL & CITY MANAGER. City.council@cityofpaloalto.org and James.Keene@cityofpaloalto.org

Posted by BARRY, a resident of Midtown
on May 7, 2010 at 3:22 pm



Posted by Julian, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 7, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Second the above.

Posted by Bob, a resident of Barron Park
on May 7, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Maybe if code enforcement is gone, that'll de-fang that paragon of the "Palo Alto Process," the building department. What an ordeal dealing with those people!

Posted by Karen, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 7, 2010 at 5:51 pm

2 years? That does not seem efficient (or cost-effective) to me.

> 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.

Posted by George, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 7, 2010 at 7:31 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by George, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 7, 2010 at 7:36 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Sarah, a resident of College Terrace
on May 7, 2010 at 8:02 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by cityworker, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 7, 2010 at 10:41 pm

Brian is an awesome guy and it is sad that management put him on the chopping block. He has served this City admirably for many years.

Two new managers were hired in the City Manager's office this past year (each $150k+ salaries), while the people on the bottom are getting cut.

Jim Keene, have you no shame?

Posted by Enough of wacko jobs, a resident of College Terrace
on May 8, 2010 at 11:21 am

Thanks to City Manager for eliminating JUNK jobs. They already had a good ride until now.

Posted by cut Cut CUT!, a resident of Barron Park
on May 8, 2010 at 11:50 am


What do these two people manage? What are their qualifications? And how big is the budget the each manage? Why does this paper not shine some sunlight on these types of issues.

If nothing is done we are all going to be in trouble.

Posted by Susan, a resident of Barron Park
on May 8, 2010 at 12:22 pm

To Wacko jobs and Cut cut cut,

It's residents like you that make our community look so bad! Many of my friends and business associates envy the quality of service that we receive from these workers. When their positions are gone you will be complaining that there is no one to help. What do they manage? How about all the rules that the city council adopts in their ordinances, who will enforce those now? And who even proposed to eliminate this, when there are so many other areas the city could "trim" down!

Posted by Charlie, a resident of Barron Park
on May 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Very good info. Now the manager/workers is about 1/2.5 All they need to do is to manage themselves properly in the coming year. It's a great plan and thanks for the hard work. Cutting down the city services is the essential way of warning the citizens to save!

Posted by Susan, a resident of Barron Park
on May 8, 2010 at 5:52 pm


Are you even aware that positions like this are the essential services that serve the residents of Palo Alto the most? It is obvious not everyone likes code enforcement, but they keep homes and companies in check and make sure they follow the rules. The saddest part is that while positions like this are on the chopping block, the city does nothing about the top heavy positions that infest our tax dollars. Instead they eliminate one job that only has two positions for the whole city, while many people in these departments share similar titles and job responsibilities and are grossing well over$100,000. But Jim Keene in his infinite wisdom chooses to eliminate all the lower hard working employee positions! Fellow residents of Palo Alto, wake up!

Posted by Charlie, a resident of Barron Park
on May 8, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Susan, You got it!

Posted by SH, a resident of Community Center
on May 9, 2010 at 5:56 am

This city is in a complete mess.

Look around yourself:
1. Broken Roads
2. Broken sidewalks
3. power lines still above ground
4. city asking residents to take the cost of side walks
5. Excessive water prices (siphoning utilities funds towards general funds)ewalk repairs
6. City budget out of wack
7. Cubberly being used for rental income (not for residents' use)
8. Libraries are a complete disaster

Other than neat and tidy manicured lawns this city looks like a COMPLETE MESS. Now they want us to stop watering these lawns.

What's left in PALO ALTO ?

Stop this nonsense of admonishing people to wake up !
Susan, it is time for you to wake up. Palo Altans are plenty smart - they would not be here if they weren't. Stop under-estimating folks around you and on this forum.

Posted by Maltese Falcon, a resident of South of Midtown
on May 9, 2010 at 10:42 am

Code enforcement won't be missed until it's gone. Maybe that's what it will take for everyone to realize how important this service really is...

Posted by Justin, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 9, 2010 at 11:50 am


Many of the things you mention are all caused by what Susan mentioned. Because of the City Manager's misappropriation of funds all the issues you mentioned are not being dealt with efficiently. The libraries are a joke, and we all know the cure for that. The City Manager continues to propose budget cuts for the lower class paid employees while his office grows, and managers stay untouched. Who do you think gets the calls for broken roads, sidewalks and other nuisances throughout the city? Why are these positions that service our community in jeopardy? And have you driven around town lately, properties aren't as kept up as you claim, and when they get like that it has a direct affect on all of us! You need to wake up SH, you need to get in touch with the community and the services the city needs to keep. Shame on you!

Posted by Michelle, a resident of Downtown North
on May 9, 2010 at 12:32 pm


I mostly agree with you. I think that too many people relate positions like these to the reason why we are in a financial mess. When in fact it is the exact opposite, these jobs help our communities. I hope our elected officials act on the greater good of the community and preserve positions like these. Who even would propose this in times like this when neighborhoods are becoming more messy than ever. If nothing happens our community will look like some of these other neighborhoods. And oh boy, I can't even imagine the uproar. Don't say I didn't warn you. Maltese has it right!

Posted by Squeeky Wheels, a resident of another community
on May 9, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Are all of you aware that over 70 low paid PA workers(much, much lower paid than Code Enforcement)are also facing layoffs?
My question is: paonline, are you going to do 'special interest' stories on ALL, or some of the other affected positions?
WHY did Code Enforcement get singled out for this story???
PLEASE examine the impact of some of the other positions on the chopping block (complete with names and pictures)so equal time is given to all of these people? It smells of favoritism.

Posted by Justin, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 9, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Squeeky Wheels,

I see your point and understand wbere you are coming from. From my understanding the article was meant to serve as a piece to educate the public on just some of the issues that they handle, not to single out a individual. That said, i know there are about 30 or so positions with real people that may get cut including this one. I think regardless of whether or not these people get placed or moved around somewhere else in the city into another position the fact remains that these jobs/responsibilities and duties to the community will not get dealt with. The city can say that they have a way to handle the loss of a position here or there, but we know that we will all suffer the consequences. The city can balance the budget and still keep our city services intact. My heart goes out to every employee who may lose their job. I have had my bad times with the city, but overall the professionalism and pride I have seen first hand from city workers is second to none. I hope people realize that when they think of contracting out positions, or cutting other programs like this all together.

Posted by JO, a resident of College Terrace
on May 10, 2010 at 1:48 pm

There are many violations of the code that take place that I am aware of, and the City's approach has been rather ineffective; the City tends to be too accommodating and deferential. Some property owners and tenants deliberately ignore the code because they can get away with it with very little consequence. Code enforcement positions could be nearly full-cost-recovery job positions if the City took code enforcement more seriously -- the collected fines could potentially fund a lot of the cost of these positions. With 600 cases a year, I would think that an average of a $500 fine per case would cover most, if not all, of the cost for both code enforcement positions. (Is an increase in fines for code violation a part of the budget proposal? If not, why not?) (Remember that the City currently fines residents $30 for "contamination" in the recycling cart, and is proposing to charge residents for recyclables in the trash and to charge property owners for sidewalk repair).

Did the limo company that located next to a school in violation of the code, and then had a limo catch fire, pay a fine? Somehow, I wouldn't be surprised if they paid nothing. Yet they cost the city money for the code enforcement officer's time and for the fire department. And, as the article points out, it could have cost the City a lot more if the fire had happened at a different time.

Eliminating code enforcement officers sends a message to code violators that enforcement is unlikely to take place. The result will be an increase in the number and severity of violations that can escalate into situations that will cost the City a lot more in the long run.

For example, are issues of liability that the City may face if the City fails to address a potentially hazardous code violation that eventually results in property damage, injury, death or even loss of business income (e.g., the business next door has to close because of a problem that resulted from lack of code enforcement).

I agree with the voices critical of Jim Keene for adding so many high salary positions in the City Manager's office. The Assistant City Manager position was "temporarily" filled with two new Deputy City Manager positions after Emily Harrison left, positions which remained when the Assistant City Manager position was eventually filled. This top-heavy structure is reflected in other City departments as well, yet the proposed cuts are not to top management, they are to the lower tier; the result is an even more top-heavy City government.

City Council also deserves criticism for approving these high salary positions, and for other extravagant expenditures that have cumulatively contributed to our current budget deficit.

And the voters deserve criticism for electing the mostly rubber-stamping majority of same-old, same-old City Council members to office; Council members who may occasionally voice a few words of criticism, but ultimately vote with the herd (and the herd then votes to fund all the pet projects of the other Council members in the herd).

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