EDITOR’S NOTE: City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s proposal to treat most building code and planning and zoning violations as infractions under the Administrative Code Enforcement laws (ACE) instead of misdemeanors has been locked up in a City Council Committee for a year. He argues the current system is costly, inefficient, subject to long delays and provides the city with only a small portion of the revenue generated by fines. Activist James O’Sullivan who supports the controversial ACE plan in concept but believes a number of safeguards need to be built into to protect the community from abuses by city officials.Here’s his recent analysis sent by email to other concerned citizens:
By James O’Sullivan
have been getting emails about the Administrative Code Enforcement (ACE)
Program that Councilmember Paul Koretz is supporting, that it needs some
help if it is to get out of the Budget and Finance Committee for a City Council
vote. It has been held in Committee for months and has just been posted
for Committee discussion.
After speaking to a few other activists I have concerns: First, it appears that
the ACE program applies to the entire LAMC, not just the list of offenses
described. This includes likely thousands of issues ranging from fence
height to setbacks.
MY CONCERNS ARE:
concern is that this process, in the hands of an insensitive bureaucracy or
malevolent future City Attorney (CA), has the potential to be used as a political
weapon. This is especially disturbing given the amount of discretion built in
to ACE and that the potential financial burden on those targeted is
to me that ACE would place a huge weapon/tool for intimidation in the hands of
some already power-hungry, authoritarian (and often incorrect/inconsistent)
building inspectors. They could make life difficult on a person that
doesn’t please them. It could open up a whole new cottage industry for
unscrupulous inspectors on a large and small scale.
that administrative costs are levied even if the property owner is right.
Under this program, people are guilty until proven innocent. To reverse
administrative costs associated with an incorrect citation, property owners
would have to spend hours and hours – at each stage increasing their risk as
administrative costs and potential fines increase. Inspectors are often
wrong and in many cases, interpretations of the code can be tricky. A
financially strapped city would have every incentive to push every case to its
limits as most people will run out of time or money to defend themselves.
Even though the city is financially strapped, it has essentially endless
resources to pursue fines whereas those cited have highly limited resources and
would be forced to capitulate.
opportunity for political retribution against a neighborhood/area by a
politician seems far too great. One call from a council office/CA to
LADBS “check” an area could be used to penalize/punish an area and to
intimidate other areas into submission. This is a real risk and no one
would know – maybe not even the CA’s office.
opportunity to pit neighbor against neighbor exists. One neighbor could
call the city and get a citation issued for a perceived violation. The
targeted neighbor would then have to bear the full expense of defending
themselves. A simple argument about fence height between properties could
turn into a massive, costly issue.
I see no
check/balance or accountability here. Why wouldn’t an inspector write as
many citations as possible if each one yields at least administrative
costs? What is the penalty for the city if they are wrong? Does the
city pay fines? The pressure on city employees to generate revenue
through citations would be substantial.
potential size of the fines and the cost of the process for an alleged
violator, it would seem that less-advantaged residents would be unable to
defend themselves. This seems to be a real environmental justice issue.
What happens if a poor property owner can’t afford the repairs
required? Do they lose their home? Do they have liens put on their
property that, in some areas of the city, might represent a substantial percentage
of the value of the property?
guarantee exists that enforcement will be equal among all areas of the
city? What would stop the city from going after the low-hanging fruit of
the more affluent areas where payment of fines is more likely?
guarantee exists that well-connected property owners might not exert political
influence to get some future CA’s office to use their discretion to avoid
10. If fines/fees are
property-based, I was under the impression that they could not exceed the cost
to the city of providing the service without a vote of the people. How
does this apply?
11. Imagine if the city
council transfers the duty of sidewalk repair/liability to property owners -
something they have been trying to do. This could result in absolutely
massive numbers of fines/violations with huge compliance costs for individuals
- including getting CITY tree roots handled that caused the damage.
12. I am disturbed by the
ability of the city to go back to require compliance on conditions that have
existed for years and years. The IRS can only go back three years.
It would seem that the city is seeking to go back some undetermined amount of
13. What are the
implications for real-estate transactions if a current property owner is
penalized for the undisclosed actions of a past owner? How many lawsuits
will be created?
14. If the city cites a
property owner for some building code violation, how much will it cost for the
property owner to even research or hire experts to research the validity of the
15. Even with a trusted CA
in place, is it reasonable to expect that the CA will have the time to
personally intervene in hundreds of improper citations?
is just a partial list of questions. This seems to be a big deal and it
needs to be very clearly laid out and understood. The process needs to
have opportunities for property owners to cure or otherwise dispose of issues
without incurring cost. Fines/fees need to be consistent with
property-based fee rules. EJ issues and the possibility of selective
enforcement need to be addressed. The system must be designed such that
there is accountability for inspectors and a disincentive to write unwarranted
citations. There just seems to be so many ways that the process might be
gamed by inspectors and politicians.
understand the need for enforcement and also that people are building without
proper permits, etc. Unfortunately, ACE just seems way too ambiguous and
not quite thought out. We need to view this and all other plans/proposals
not in the hands of a trusted Nuch & Co. We need to project how each
new rule might be used by some future, possibly malevolent, inaccessible or
disinterested CA. It seems that this plan should be postponed until it is
fully-baked and safeguards are in place to prevent abuse/misuse.
cost of fixing a poorly thought-out process is generally accepted to be 10x the
cost of doing it right the first time. Additionally, it is highly
unlikely that a cash-strapped city is going to voluntarily cut off a
cash-generating program once it is in place. While it is true that “we
have to start somewhere,” this particular somewhere seems too extreme.
Lastly, if this program has taken over a year to get to this stage, how long
will a potential fix take?
enforcement program is a good idea, but only if it is well thought out, the
incentives are properly balanced, the rights of citizens are protected and the
opportunities for abuse are minimized. This doesn’t seem to be there yet.