City of Fresno Code Enforcement ARTICLE

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Looks like Fresno City Hall will have the new budget safely out of the way before it finally gets to the code enforcement appeal of the year.

Independent Administrative Hearing Officer Michael Flores said Summerset Village Apartments owner Chris Henry and the city’s Code Enforcement Division will tangle sometime in July.

Henry is appealing 1,450 alleged code violations at Summerset and a total of $290,000 in fines. The hearing was originally scheduled for May 24. Then it was postponed until late June.

Now the hearing should begin in the first or second week of July, Flores said. The Fourth of July falls on a Monday. My bet: We’re talking the second week, at the earliest.

Part of Flores’ challenge is finding the right venue. Code appeals usually are heard in a relatively small conference room next to the second-floor Council Chamber. The Summerset appeal figures to attract considerable public and media interest. The crisis last November at the large central Fresno apartment complex (no gas-generated heat or hot water for hundreds of tenants) sparked interest far outside Fresno.

The hearings also could go into a second or even a third day. After all, both sides are lawyering up and Henry has no desire to be formally judged The Most Evil Landlord In Fresno History.

Flores at one point considered the Convention Center’s Exhibit Hall as a possible site. There was plenty of spectator space, but the rental cost was prohibitive.

Flores is now leaning toward the Council Chamber, his original choice. The Council Chamber can seat more than 100 people.

The Henry appeal is just one aspect in City Hall’s hurly-burly world of code enforcement. Elsewhere, city officials continue trying to build a hearing process to their liking.

Keane Anrig, contract compliance coordinator in the City Attorney’s Office, sent an email to Independent Administrative Hearing Officer Ed Johnson in May. Anrig’s request: Please send a list of Johnson’s decisions since 2013 – case type, disposition, fines assessed.

According to city code, the City Attorney’s Office every quarter is to review a hearing officer’s decisions to make sure he’s, well, following city code.

Johnson in his email reply told Anrig where to find his decisions on the computer. If that’s not good enough, Johnson said, “I have two lateral file cabinets full of files you can sift through.”

That made me chuckle. I don’t know if sifting through two file cabinets was what Anrig had in mind. Then again, Johnson, whose three-year contract with the city began in fall 2013, and the City Attorney’s Office haven’t been the best of friends lately.

Johnson in some of his recent decisions has admonished the Code Enforcement Division – and, by extension, the City Attorney’s Office – for its failure to properly write and execute a citation against landlords. In particular, the city can’t seem to get a handle on how to effectively use the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance.

Flores, a former Fresno deputy city attorney who’s been on the job for only a few months, hasn’t been much nicer to city officials.

Johnson sent me a statistical breakdown (in two parts) of his decisions. The first list covers November 2013 to March 2015. The second list covers March 2015 to May 2016.

According to Johnson, he handed down 1,989 decisions from November 2013 to March 2015. Nearly 93% were “affirmed/confirmed as presented by City.” A bit less than 4% were confirmed/affirmed in part. Only 3.6% were dismissed/reversed/not confirmed.

The cases ranged from animal control issues and parking violations to cost recovery requests and blight citations. The single biggest type of case involved cost recovery requests by various city departments. Fifty-two of the 72 cases that were dismissed/reversed/not confirmed involved parking.

Johnson from March 2015 to May 2016 handed down 862 decisions (where he took specific action). Nearly 91% came down totally on the city’s side and other 3% were partial city victories. Of the 53 that went against the city, 34 involved parking.

The big question for city officials is how much money Johnson cost city coffers in the relatively few blight decisions that went totally or partially against City Hall. Of course, Johnson would say he didn’t cost the city a dime. He’d say the dismissed fines were due to city miscues (someone else might say incompetence).

I asked Assistant City Manager Renena Smith earlier this week what the Administration plans to do when Johnson’s contract expires in October. He makes $100,000 a year.

Smith said the city probably would seek “RFPs” – requests for proposals. In other words, Johnson and anyone else with a legal background and a desire to make $100,000 a year could apply for the job.

Code enforcement is much on the minds of city officials during the current budget hearings. For example, the Mayor wants to add four positions to the City Attorney’s Office, two of them earmarked for lawyers who would target persistent violators of code (we’re talking “slumlords”).

I asked Code Enforcement Manager Del Estabrooke this week whether his office has an open file on the four-acre property on the southwest corner of Blackstone and Clinton avenues. This includes the old “Happy Steak” site that was much in the news last year when the then-property owner wanted to build a Smart & Final store there.

The site contains two boarded-up commercial buildings and several boarded-up houses (based on my walk through the neighborhood last week). The front windows of the buildings are boarded up with plywood, apparently in violation of the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance. Landlords are supposed to use a clear material.

The site is surrounded by a temporary security fence. It is located near Fresno City College and along historic Blackstone Avenue (once deemed Fresno’s “Boulevard of Dreams”). To say that the site is in a high-profile spot is an understatement.

On top of that, the surrounding residential neighborhood clearly is full of low-income renters. This is precisely the type of neighborhood that is supposed to be helped by the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance.

Estabrooke said he’d get back to me.

It wouldn’t take much investigative work to notice the code-enforcement challenges at the four-acre site, not to mention the harm being done to the neighborhood by the blight. At least I’m assuming the site is harming the neighborhood. City officials and community activists often tell me blight is devastating to community health.

City officials did confirm that the site is now owned by Granville Homes.

There’s a landlord with no cash-flow problems.

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