SB city attorney blasts code-enforcement reform
Josh Dulaney, Staff Writer
Posted: 01/24/2011 05:49:05 PM PST

SAN BERNARDINO – The city attorney believes the City Council’s decision to look into revamping the code-enforcement process is an attempt to chip away at his authority.

And it could be costly – to the tune of $1 million a year, James F. Penman said.

He called the proposed changes in code-enforcement penalties “a stunt” in the aftermath of a failed ballot measure that would have given the council power to appoint the city attorney.

Measure C, which was defeated in the November election, would have given the council and mayor the authority to appoint the city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer, positions that are chosen through elections.

But others say the proposed overhaul is about inconsistent enforcement of violations of city code that only leave the public confused and frustrated.

Third Ward Councilman Tobin Brinker called for the meeting on the code-penalty overhaul after seeing what he said were variations in the way code enforcement was being handled throughout the city.

At its meeting last week, the council tasked its Legislative Review Committee with examining the benefits of a code- penalty overhaul.

As it is, someone can be fined $100 per day for a code violation, while another person could be hit with a one-time penalty of $100 for the same violation if the person is working toward compliance.

The city uses administrative citations for minor code violations such as neglecting lawn maintenance.

Such offenses call for a $100 fine for the first violation, $200 for the second violation in a 12-month period and $500 for the third violation in a 12-month period.

The city also uses administrative civil penalties, which are stiffer fines of up to $1,000 per day.

Penman, who said he was reluctant to assign his investigators to code-violation work, said his office issued administrative civil penalties to the tune of $1.1 million last fiscal year, mostly against banks and absentee landlords who let their properties fall apart.

He said the city took in $1.4 million in such penalties.

A hybrid of the two penalty systems – which the Legislative Review Committee is considering – would undercut the ability of the City Attorney’s Office to go after banks because it means they would probably first be hit by the lighter citations, Penman said.

“It’s like shooting a large animal with a BB gun,” Penman said.

He said citations previously failed to get banks to comply.

As he continued to hammer the banks with administrative civil penalties, Penman said, the banks looked for help from those on the council who supported Measure C.

Supporters of Measure C said it would have been a way to take politics out of the City Attorney’s Office, while its detractors said the proposal was a power grab that Mayor Pat Morris and his allies orchestrated to oust Penman.

“These banks for years have repossessed properties and let them go unattended,” Penman said. “And now that they are being forced to pay, they are crying to the mayor and the council majority, asking us to forgo (the penalties). Through a back door, they are trying to take it away.”

But Brinker said it’s Penman who is attempting to use city policy as a means for political gain.

Brinker said Penman initially didn’t want to issue administrative civil penalties but is now touting his office’s success with them as a campaign tool because he is up for re-election this year.

“He always wants to have it both ways,” Brinker said. “He talks out of both sides of his mouth, and I’m calling him out on it.”

Brinker has said all he wants the city to consider is a uniform set of policies to enforce code violations.

With agencies such as the Fire Department, Police Department, the code compliance division and the City Attorney’s Office issuing various levels of penalties for similar violations, residents are often left confused and angry, some officials say.

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