Reports by Kevin H, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevharb/3056726319/in/photostream/
Over the weekend, the city of Oakland released its preliminary response to the 2010-2011 Alameda County Grand Jury Report about problems in the city's Building Services Division, as well as about Oakland's parking bureau and regional emergency communications.
The bulk of the response focused on Building Services - the subject of reportedly thousands of complaints against Oakland City Hall in the past couple years.
The city said it already addressed the problems about parking and emergency communications with new equipment and systems. It also said it "is committed to transforming its code enforcement" processes and its Building Services operations. It said it will make "immediate change efforts" to improve transparency in its operations and customer service; create a data management system that the public can access to look up property issues; revise its due process procedures so there is a predictable timeline between notices and liens and fees; and fix its appeals process.
Responding point-by-point to the Alameda County Grand Jury's findings, the city said it concurs with many of the findings, specifically that building inspectors need to be better trained, that the department's citations need to describe a violation rather than just cite a number of a code - something that leaves many small property owners bewildered - and that Building Services establish and adhere to deadlines for responding to fined property owners.
Some say these three changes would go a long way in answering thousands of complaints the city reportedly received about Building Services in recent years. These include being charged that it issues confusing notices that anyone without sufficient Internet skills for searching the city's ordinances would not understand, that its inspectors sometimes bully and intimidate property owners and that it doesn't answer inquiries or requests for appeals.
The grand jury found that building inspectors often operated in an atmosphere of "hostility and intimidation" when dealing with property owners. Oakland Local reporting found that some Building Services inspectors allegedly would threaten
property owners, saying they'd run them out of business, or slap higher fees on unless the property owner complied to an abatement notice without trying to appeal. One inspector was said to have thrown out all the furnishings and contents of a home, leaving the resident nothing. The city agreed that it needed a training program for inspectors so that, among other things, they will be "working with - not against - property owners."
The city also agreed it must fix the appeal process and with the need to establish a "clear, simple, effective appeals process" after the grand jury found that its appeals process was "broken" and many property owners said was non-existent. The city also said it would follow a grand jury recommendation that it develop a centralized case management system accessible to building inspectors and property owners alike.
In its weekend response, dated today, Aug. 15, the city said it only "partially concurs" with several other grand jury recommendations. One of the items it agrees with is that going forward, it make sure that the actual property owners receive the violation and lien notices. The city blamed the fact that property owners often don't get these notices on the county's property records, and then said the city would have its own new data system installed and implemented in 18 months.
Many complaints have come in that property owners did not know about a violation until an unpaid lien was attached to their property tax bill. The city faces at least one law suit about this.
In the preliminary response, the City only "partially concurred" with several other grand jury recommendations, including that it stop using prospective liens, a first notice fine that many cities don't use and which property owners complained were used aggressively.
"In the past, prospective liens in high amounts may have had an unintended, intimidating and punitive effect on property owners. However, using prospective liens in lower amounts is a valuable tool for the city," the preliminary response said. The city did say, however, that it has suspended using prospective liens while it studies the situation and looks for possible alternatives for early warning notices.
The overall message or introduction to the city's response - penned by new City Administrator Deanna Santana who has been on the job only a few weeks - said the Community Economic Development Agency is "working to transform code enforcement operations back into neighborhood preservation approaches" rather complaint-driven code police.
It did not address a grand jury recommendation that the city re-evaluate the powers given to inspectors.
The city's response also claimed the Alameda County Grand Jury report was inaccurate on some counts, particularly that it doesn't use a bidding process to find contractors to clean up properties where code violations occur. Based on evidence that property owners showed the grand jury, it had said that sometimes contracts to clean up a property were awarded in inappropriate ways. The city claims the department uses "an informal competitive process" for construction contracts of under $50,000.
The city also complained that the grand jury did not interview the director of Community Economic Development Agency nor its deputy director in charge of Building Services for its report. Those officials spoke with Oakland Local. Now they have their marching orders for fixing up the division's ways.