Last Updated: July 1, 6 p.m.
Starting Thursday, residents in Palm Coast, as anywhere in Florida, may no longer lodge anonymous code enforcement complaints. They must identify themselves by name and address, though the requirement is lax enough to lend itself to deception: in Palm Coast there is no verification system in place and no intention to pursue individuals who lodge complaints under bogus names.
The change is the result of controversial law that made its way through the Legislature last spring and got the governor’s signature. Senate Bill 60 passed the Senate by a party-line 27-11 vote and the House by 81-35, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed. Flagler County’s Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner voted for it.
All such documents are public records, so the new law enables anyone facing a code enforcement violation to find out who lodged the complaint–assuming the complainant did so honestly.
“There really is not a concrete way to verify that people are giving their true identity, so I’m sure that we’ll get a lot of John Smiths or whatever name they come up with,” Brittany Kershaw, Palm Coast’s chief spokesperson, said today. “Unfortunately at this time there’s no way to verify that name.” Verification would take time and resources, and it wouldn’t be as simple as calling a number to verify. “The requirement as we read it in the law is that the name and address will be the identifying information, so they don’t have to provide a phone number.”
The new law itself does not address enforcement of the identification provision, it does not set out any requirements for verification, it does not signal any penalties for people who invent names, and it imposes no requirements either on local governments in general or on code enforcement officers to do more than note whether a complainant has been identified or not. In effect, the law resembles those mask mandates Flagler’s cities passed last year: without enforcement, the mandate adds up to a recommendation. In this case, it’s more comparable to an unenforceable unmasking mandate.
Currently complaints may be lodged online or by phone. Online complaint forms include a field for a complainant to self-identify. That field had been voluntary. It will now be required, or the complaint will not be filed.
The city averages 1,350 complaints a month, with top complaints based on time of year: overgrown yards lead the way during the summer, hazardous trees prompt complaints during hurricane season, and so on. On average the city receives about 140 complaints per month on commercial vehicles, and 350-400 signage complaints (any type of sign, political/garage sale/etc) per month, a city spokesperson said. All alleged violations are investigated.
On paper, the new law “prohibits county and municipal code inspectors from initiating an investigation into violations of city or county codes or ordinances based upon an anonymous complaint. It also requires that an individual making a complaint of a potential violation provide his or her name and address to the local government body before an investigation may occur,” as a legislative analysis describes it.
Residents typically lodge complaints about neighbors, citing such things as unkempt yards, unseemly garbage, commercial vehicles parked in driveways, noise, and so on. Even “missing building components, such as windows, walks, siding, or roofing materials, must be replaced, as well as broken fencing, screening or decorative elements” must be replaced, according to city regulations, though unless a neighbor complains–or a code enforcement officer patrolling the neighborhood sees it–the violation could be left dormant.
Most local governments had allowed anonymous complaints. Some, like Collier County, had stopped doing so before the new law.
There is one exception: the prohibition on anonymous complaints does not apply if a code enforcement officer judges the code enforcement violation to be an imminent threat to public health or safety, or if it alerts to imminent danger of destruction pf habitat or sensitive resources. Whether code enforcement officers may interpret “health” or “safety” to apply to that of complainants worried about their own safety may be a matter of debate.
While the law requires disclosure of complainants’ names and addresses, one of the exemptions to the state’s public record law includes code enforcement officers’ own home addresses, phone numbers and photographs. In other words, while complainants’ names must be revealed, and are preserved as public records, some of code enforcement officers’ similar personal information is protected.
Palm Coast, which has an active code enforcement department, has been the focus of two recent controversies centered on its Code Enforcement Department. The first involved City Council member Victor Barbosa, who after his election in November turned to code enforcement vigilantism, driving around town and shaming specific properties by posting images of videos of the properties he judged to be in violation of the code. (He also cleaned up a property with a few volunteers.) Along the way, Barbosa would send specific addresses to the city manager to forward to code enforcement for investigations. Matt Morton, the manager at the time, had Barbosa’s complaints “tagged” as Barbosa’s, so as to keep up with them so he could inform the council member of outcomes.
Even though Barbosa was making no secret of his vigilantism on his Facebook page, he took the city manager’s tagging as a violation of Barbosa’s privacy, and called for the manager’s firing on that account (the council did not go along). By the evening he did so, several legislative committees had approved the new law, which was a few weeks away from garnering both legislative chambers’ votes. Once it got the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis (who Barbosa admires), Barbosa’s charge against the manager (who has since resigned) was entirely moot, though it had been largely mooted by Barbosa’s own scant documentation of his accusations.
Not much later, code enforcement was again a focus of the council when a “Difficult Citizens List” the city administration had conceived in 2015 and maintained since 2016 came to light. The list, effectively kept secret even from those named in it, absent specific public record requests, named individuals who’d acted boorishly or dangerously toward city employees, many of them code enforcement officers, who interact with the public. The list included descriptions of the sort of abuse officers endured, some of it vile, some of it physically threatening (one resident hurled a spear at a code enforcement officer’s official vehicle). The council demanded that the list no longer be populated, at least not in its present form. The council wants the administration to devise strict and transparent rules, if such a list is to be maintained at all in the future.