The review by Richardson and Senior Auditor Yuki Matsuura was prompted by persistent concerns from members of the City Council and the public about insufficient and inconsistent enforcement of laws relating to everything from graffiti and illegally dumped garbage to fake "retail" stores that serve as fronts for offices or warehouses and violate the property's zoning.
The audit credits the city with resolving many code-enforcement cases effectively, but it notes that its response has been hampered by staffing limitations and "fragmented municipal-code requirements."
Fluctuating organization of the code-enforcement program over the years has added to the confusion, with the city shifting responsibilities for leaf-blower violations from the Planning and Community Environment Department to the Police Department in 2005 (and then back to Planning) and swapping code-enforcement functions between the building and planning divisions.
"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."
In addition, the city has a policy that focuses on getting people to comply rather than issuing them citations, which occasionally frustrates the residents who want a violation to end.
The city's top managers and council's Policy and Services Committee all agreed Tuesday enforcement of city code needs to improve. They also acknowledged that implementing the necessary fixes won't be quick or easy. Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada, who is set to become city manager early next year, said he plans to work with the planning department, 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 ... 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 to correct 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 notes that when residents enter a complaint into PaloAlto311, it then proceeds to the appropriate departments, whose staff then plug the complaint into their own separate databases, which they use to manage the case (the planning department, for example, uses the Accela system). Once the complaint is moved to another system, PaloAlto311 marks it as "completed," which leads residents to believe that their issue has been resolved (or ignored) when, in fact, the city's response may be just getting started.
Deputy City Manager Michelle Flaherty called the problem with the record-keeping "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," she said.
The committee's four council members all agreed. Councilwoman Karen Holman, a longtime advocate for improving code enforcement, suggested that the city take a new 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 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 with public outreach, whether by 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.
READ MORE ONLINE
Additional reporting on the city audit can be found in the article "Palo Alto audit finds flaws in code enforcement," published on PaloAltoOnline.com on Nov. 10.
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