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To Battle Nit-Pickers, Palm Coast Will Make Anonymous Code Enforcement Complaints More Difficult

| August 11, 2015

code enforcement

Don’t let a neighbor spot it. (© FlaglerLive)

Addressing a long-running grievance that it’s much too easy for nameless people to file code violation complaints against their neighbor, Palm Coast is going to make it a little more difficult to do so. It won’t make it impossible. But will require raise a few hurdles against anonymity.

It’s a question numerous Palm Coast residents have asked themselves—or their city government—at one time or another: why are people allowed to file anonymous code-violation complaints against their neighbors? Doesn’t that make it easier to harass? To be nit-picky? To file frivolous claims?

It does, but the city administration has been reluctant to change the system—let alone change its policy—and require complainers to identify themselves for several reasons: it won’t change much of the way code enforcement officers do their job, it could increase neighborhood feuds now that targets of complaints can confront their accuser, encourage people using false identities and heighten perceptions of inconsistency on code enforcement’s part.

Two city council members—Jason DeLorenzo and Steven Nobile—were particularly interested in revisiting the matter.  “We are trying to understand better is how much resources are we putting towards people complaining for the sake of complaining,”  DeLorenzo said.

“The inspection performed is money we’re spending on someone who’s just making someone’s life hard, OK? So whether it’s a violation or not is irrelevant. We’re still imputing a lot of that time. Second, a lot of the violations, a lot of the codes, are subjective,” Nobile said. He recurrently described an example of a garbage can being visible to a neighbor despite the issue being dealt with, but for a few inches. It was a case of a neighbor being intransigent, and never giving his name. “There should be a way to complain back,” Nobile said.

DeLorenzo’s idea: online, on the phone or by email, the complainant must give name and number, or a verifiable email address. The city should also verify that the complainant is real. The idea is to create “something a little bit more difficult” for complainants to do, while still giving them the opportunity to complain.

City Manager Jim Landon favored the ideas, especially the ability of the city to contact a complainant. But he cautioned: there are people who “truly fear their neighbor,” but must still have the ability to complain. “We’re not changing policy. We’re changing the website,” Landon said. “Then, if they call, if they come to see us, we don’t require them to give the name.”

In other words, the option of complaining anonymously would not be eliminated. It would just be an extra hurdle.

So the name and email address will now be required when filling out web complaints. If those aren’t included, the complaints will not go through. “We can evaluate it as we go along as far as what feedback we get,” Landon said, with the option of actually blocking “frequent fliers.”

Currently, residents—or anyone, for that matter—can report code violations in person, by phone, through the mail or the website or by email, and they can do so anonymously. According to the city’s tally, a year’s worth of “action orders,” or actual complaints, totaled 13,076, about 60 percent of which were generated by the public (some 700 a  month).

Once the complaint is received an inspector checks it out and either issues a notice of violation or closes the case if no violation is found. Property owners get a “reasonable” amount of time to fix the violation before a re-inspection. If the violation persists, it goes before the code board.

Anonymous complaints can be made in person, but no longer online.

The majority of complaints are about commercial vehicles in residential areas. It’s just not clear how many are legitimate, how many are more on the harassment side.

“I would suspect that code enforcement staff, Barbara on down,” Mayor Jon Netts said, referring to Barbara Grossman, the code enforcement manager, “very quickly recognize who the nitpicking, nasty next-door neighbor is, and I can’t imagine that Barbara is so hidebound to the code that regardless of the fact that she knows this is a nitpicking neighbor, is going to send somebody out anyway. There has to be some discretion.”

Landon sought to put the process in context: the harassment types are not as frequent as public perception may have it. The majority of resources are devoted to the recurring violators, whether it’s the dog that barks all the time or the garbage that gets piled up improperly, or the grass that never gets cut.  “We have a whole lot more of those people that are bad news to live next to than we do of the ones that are picky complainers that are just trying to make their neighbors miserable,” Landon said.

“I’m not sure there is a good legislative solution to this problem,” Netts said. “I think the solution to the problem lies with code enforcement staff understanding the issues that city council faces and saying, all right, let’s apply some reasonableness to this process. When we know that Joe Smith is this habitual complainer, we probably give a little less credence to his 437th complaint as we do to somebody who’s never complained before.”

“The problem that I’m hearing that may be generating this discussion more is,” city attorney Bill Reischmann said, “where the next-door neighbor complains about the garbage can. It’s fixed. the neighbor complains about the law. And it’s fixed. Then the next-door neighbor complains about the swimming pool, and it’s not a real problem, and it just goes on and on and on, and that is much more difficult to solve, because it’s chicken little. If you start ignoring it, then the swimming pool could be a real problem and we’re ignoring it because it’s the same complainant. But the swimming pool is in violation and god forbid something terrible happens. It’s a tough nut to crack.”

What the administration wanted to stay away from is a change in policy. Expoerience frames the issue, according to Landon, particularly on making names mandatory. “If you create this policy, there are side effects, unintended consequences, things we deal with all the time that you don’t deal with. You’d be amazed. So if you don’t want to hear what the consequences of changing this, that’s fine, but I think it’s our job to let you know,”  Landon said earlier in the discussion, before DeLorenzo provided a compromise.

“What I’m looking for is a solution to the problem of people using code enforcement as a weapon against other people,” Nobile said.

“You’re either anonymous, or you’re not, those are the two choices,” Netts said.

“The two choices for that one question. So you’re telling me that staff is not responsible to come to me with better solutions. It’s my job to do that,” Nobile said.

“No, I’m not telling you that. I’m telling you, if you don’t want anonymity, then you must have a name. Those are you two choices,” Netts replied.

“That’s it. There’s nothing else.”

“No. Anonymous. Not anonymous.”

As it turned out, there was something else. The administration will develop the DeLorenzo option and bring it back to council for approval.

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16 Responses for “To Battle Nit-Pickers, Palm Coast Will Make Anonymous Code Enforcement Complaints More Difficult”

  1. buylocal says:

    How about if someone complains they also get inspected

  2. David B says:

    This is good. Because for years, we have had a older man that lives up the street from us who walks down the street with a notepad and pen who writes down everything he sees about others property, and writes it down and reports it to code enforcement. Many of us have try to talk to him about this, and he is to harsh in his judgement of others. But he refuses to talk to any of us rationally. He is very mean spirited.

    • YankeeExPat says:

      I don’t know if it is the same Individual or not, but there is an older gentleman that rides around the F section on a three wheeled bicycle that stops at the edge of the road and measures grass height with a yardstick. I have seen this every morning for at least the last 5 years. Same guy?…… a club?… Intern for the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies of Flagler County? Just rubs me the wrong way as “Creepy” behavior.

      • Carol Mikola says:

        You hit the nail on the head with your comment about the Ronald Reagan “Republicans”. This is exactly the kind of behavior many of them would engage in.

        Steve Nobile says, “What I’m looking for is a solution to the problem of people using code enforcement as a weapon against other people.” If he’s looking for a solution, perhaps he can look into the RRR’s and evaluate objectively their horrific behavior. It’s a start and it’s something that has been suggested to him many times. Perhaps he should also resign from the RRR’s which he’s also been asked to do numerous times.

        Don’t hold your breath, YankeeExPat.

  3. tulip says:

    I can agree with having to enter your e mail address, or your name, whichever a person chooses to do. However, if a full name and phone # is required, I’m afraid that people won’t report very necessary and dangerous violations for fear of retribution, which is scary because people get too enraged very quickly and have no problem causing problems for someone.

    In my neighborhood there are people that irrigate whenever they want and people that use the swales as their daytime and overnight parking spaces, as well as other things, but nothing gets done about it because Iwas told that CE has to actually drive by and see the violation, which I can understand. However, who is going to drive around after 1 a.m. to look for cars in swales, if a person waters whenever they want, or parks business trucks in their driveway? There is no set schedule these people go by so a person can’t give a definite time of day when the violations occur. Once a few neighbors get away with it, more and more do the same thing.

    Anyway, just don’t make it too difficult for an honest citizen to make a credible report. JMO

    • Pink says:

      If a vehicle is parked on the swale, the city has no enforcement against it. Only the police can issue a warning or citation or have the vehicle towed NOT the city so after 1:00a.m. if a car is parked on the swale call the Flagler County Sheriff’s office, not code enforcement.

  4. Robert says:

    Understand both sides (anonymous vs. open) and the arrogant neighbor who may “go after” their neighbor. What I do not see in this article is that the City of PC will tell the resident being investigated who is complaining. If the City keeps this info anonymous, and the complaint is legit, then it should be business as usual. Just a thoght.

  5. frankie boy says:

    so now when code enforcement employees take home trucks for days on end-and someone complains,they know who complained and can now harass the locals…..

  6. Anonymous says:

    Why don’t people just go talk to their neighbor about the problem instead of reporting them. How about offering to help them correct the problem. Does everyone just hide and report away? Get to know your neighbors, stop hiding behind the curtains peering out.

  7. Nasty Neighbors says:

    Yea, this is going to work. Now you will have “moral less trash” neighbors going after the little old lady next to them who complained about beer cans thrown on her lawn. Time to granny a BIG GUN !!!

  8. Joey says:

    I’m glad of this. I don’t think the names of the complainant should be provided to the person who had the complaint filed against them, but it should definitely be logged so that the code enforcement has records of potential harassment.

    Also maybe the next step is fighting against the lawn companies who park their trucks in the middle of the road (not in the swale), throwing some cheap $2 orange walmart cones, and acting like what they are doing is completely legal and you’re the asshole if you give them a look for completely blocking traffic.

    • Korey says:

      How would the grass cutters, CUT the grass in front of the swale if they have to PARK on it ? Perhaps we just STOP cutting grass……yea, that’s not going to happen !! Learn to DRIVE.

  9. ItsTheFactsJack says:

    The problem is that Code Enforcement needs to do their job, instead, of relying on the public to report the majority of the complaints.

    • Pink says:

      Now that code enforcement will have so much free time on their hands since I am sure there will be many less complaints what are they going to do with all of that free time? They don’t do much now.

  10. Anonymous says:

    CE is useless and subjective.. I tried to help a neighbor that allowed a friend to park a vehicle in his back yard for a weekend but the friend had still not retrieved the vehicle after 2 mos. Not wanting to upset the friend or cause any expense to said friend asked me what he should do. My response was I’d report it to CE so that he could show the violation to his friend and persuade him to move it. Guess what? CE responded that they could not climb a fence or break through it to write a violation. The home only has a fence at the rear portion of the yard along a roadway not on the sides or front. Long and short of it …CE chose not to do anything. I apologized to my neighbor that I couldn’t be of more help and 1 mo. later the friend finally removed the vehicle.

  11. Kenneth Stump says:

    Had I known how nit picky and stupid this community is, I would have never bought this house or moved here. I specifically told my realtor “NO PLACE WITH AN HOA”. So she kept her mouth shut about the one that exists within the local one horse hick government here. Not to mention that the code enforcer I’m most familiar with apparently has an IQ considerably smaller than his ring finger.
    It seems when there is no work to do that would actually benefit the people who live here and pay his wages, he plays “Condo Commando” and makes himself a royal pain in the ass to those of us that live within his paper route! Not only did the Realtor give me exactly what I told her I didn’t want, I even have to pay for this BS through my taxes!!!
    What garbage!

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