Palo Alto's ever-evolving and much maligned code-enforcement program will face new scrutiny from city leaders next week after an audit by the office of City Auditor Harriet Richardson uncovered a range of problems with how the city documents, responds to and resolves complaints.
The audit, which the City Council's Policy and Services Committee is scheduled to discuss on Tuesday, found that while the city addresses many code violations effectively, its response is often hampered by a host of factors: unclear roles and responsibilities, limited staffing, use of two different systems to accept and track complaints, incomplete and unreliable data, and fragmented Municipal Code requirements, among other issues. The city also has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to public communication, including the ease with which residents can track the city's progress on resolving their complaints, according to the audit.
In addition to the flaws with the city's current procedures, the audit also notes that some of the residents' frustrations stem from the city's broad code-enforcement strategy -- or lack thereof. Among its chief recommendations is a call for City Hall to clarify its code-enforcement strategy and priorities with the City Council.
The audit, which was conducted by Richardson and Performance Auditor Yuki Matsuura, has been in the works for more than a year and a half. It was sparked by concerns from council members and residents about festering violations not getting resolved, many pertaining to new developments and illegal uses of existing buildings. In 2017, a citywide survey showed only 52 percent of residents giving code enforcement a "good" or "excellent" rating (down from 62 percent in 2014), despite the fact that most respondents said that they had never actually observed a violation.
By nature, city code enforcement is a multi-headed beast: Violations include everything from the illegal use of gas-powered leaf blowers to fake "retail" stores that serve as fronts for offices or warehouses that violate the property's zoning. Handling that wide range of complaints falls to an equally broad range of departments: The Planning and Community Environment Department handles complaints about zoning violations while the Police Department responds to noise complaints, the Fire Department enforces requirements relating to fire safety and hazardous materials, Development Services tracks building-code violations, Community Services oversees violations in parks and open spaces (including those relating to feeding wildlife and illegal driving) and Public Works responds to violations involving the property damage and the public right of way. These include illegal dumping and graffiti.
Some code-enforcement cases, the audit notes, overlap departments. Planning and Building staff work together to abate situations like unpermitted construction and expired building permits. Leaf-blower violations have historically been the purview of both the Planning and Police departments.
City departments generally do a good job resolving violations when their roles and responsibilities are clear, the audit states. Recently, however, the city has seen "numerous organizational changes that have affected staffing and priorities, causing roles and responsibilities to become unclear for some functions."
"The city does not always resolve code-enforcement cases effectively and in a timely manner due to factors such as unclear roles and responsibilities and fragmented Municipal Code requirements," the audit concluded.
Problems with tracking cases
The different platforms that the city uses to receive and track complaints add to the confusion. Residents are encouraged to use the PaloAlto311 platform, which is available on the city's website and as a mobile app, to flag violations. Planning and Public Works departments both rely on PaloAlto311, though Planning also uses the Accela system to manage cases as they get resolved. Police, meanwhile, use its Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, which is independent of the other two.
"This decentralized recordkeeping system produces incomplete or inconsistent data that is difficult to aggregate into a citywide view," the audit states.
The city audit focused on Planning Department's code enforcement data (mostly because it's the only useful dataset it could draw upon). Auditors found that while staff had documented detailed information in most cases, other information was missing.
"Data entry was inconsistent and the system was not configured to capture and produce reliable and useful data for management decisions," the audit found.
What's more, the audit concluded that the city "has not clearly defined what data should be tracked to assess the workload and performance of its code-enforcement functions on a citywide basis."
"Inconsistent and incomplete data limit the city's ability to identify trends for strategic policy discussions and resource allocation," the audit states.
When it comes to communication with the public, the auditors found some peculiarities: When the Planning Department receives the resident's complaint through PaloAlto311, staff opens a case, marks the complaint as "completed" in PaloAlto311 and uses Accela to manage the case. While the resident can monitor the case in Accela, the marking of the active case as "completed" in PaloAlto311 can cause him or her to assume that the case has been closed without correction, the audit notes.
The audit also found that the PaloAlto311 "request number" is not always recorded into Accela and that the Accela case number isn't recorded into the PaloAlto311 record, which makes it difficult for the public to track a case's status.
To clear up the confusion, the audit recommends that the city manager provide general, citywide information on code enforcement in a central location on the city's website, including the city's code-enforcement strategy and priorities, the enforcement process, a brief description of code requirements and instructions on tracking cases. The audit also recommends that the city assign to an employee the responsibility for administering PaloAlto311 on a citywide basis to better coordinate the code enforcement work currently scattered throughout City Hall.
A philosophy of correction, plus organizational schizophrenia
While the audit focuses on technical and organizational factors that hamper effective code enforcement, it also suggests that the city's broader philosophy on code enforcement, which prioritizes correction over punishment, is the source of some resident's frustrations.
Because the city's overall strategy is to achieve compliance rather than to impose sanctions, individuals subject to complaints are given an opportunity to correct the problem before a citation is issued, particularly when the violation does not create an immediate danger to health and safety. The city also grants people extensions as needed to allow them to continue their "good-faith effort to abate the violation."
In the past, the council has been on board with the lenient approach. The audit cites a 2005 report, approved by the council, that explicitly discourages formal enforcement, unless "absolutely necessary."
"Criminal and civil enforcement are available but will only be used as the last resort options," states the 2005 report, which was drafted by the offices of the city attorney and the city manager.
The audit notes that this strategy "may frustrate complainants who may urge the city to issue a citation when they are directly affected by a violation." However, the Municipal Code generally does not allow city staff to immediately issue a citation unless certain criteria are met, according to the audit.
"Issuing a citation could also result in costly and time-consuming administrative hearings or legal proceedings," the audit states.
The city's ability to effectively respond to complaints has also been complicated by a series of organizational changes that the city has made in the past two decades, which resulted in some functions become unclear. In fiscal year 2005, for example, the city tried to consolidate its code-enforcement efforts by giving the Police Department primary oversight over the work; the following year, the city scuttled its joint code-enforcement efforts by eliminating numerous positions, including the chief police code officer.
In 2009, code enforcement for the Planning Department was transferred to the Building Division, and in 2011, the Police Department saw its code-enforcement capacity dwindle from 1.5 full-time-equivalent positions to one position. The department also lost a part-time position charged with enforcing the city's ban on gas-powered leaf blowing in neighborhoods, which the city adopted in 2005.
"These staffing reductions affected response times and left some areas without effective enforcement in subsequent years," the audit states.
The program made a significant advance in January 2016, when the city hired its first lead code-enforcement officer, who was given the authority to oversee and improve the program within Planning. The lead officer, James Stephens, did just that and, according to the audit, made numerous improvements, including the creation of new categories for certain case types (including leaf blowers and short-term rentals), to make these violations easier to track, and standardizing the process for notifying parties of alleged violations. Yet his tenure came to an abrupt end in August, when he resigned to join Santa Clara County. The position has been vacant ever since.
Laws on the books, but no enforcement
Meanwhile, the city's enforcement of the leaf-blowing ordinance has plummeted, according to the audit. When the council created the lead code-enforcement officer position in fiscal year 2016, it wanted the person filling the position to be more proactive in enforcing Municipal Code requirements and taking on some responsibility for enforcing the leaf-blower ban.
"Although Planning proactively enforced leaf blowers in the beginning, it no longer does, and staff cited increased case workload as the reason," the audit states.
In some cases, the city has neither the will nor the resources to enforce what appears to be a violation. The audit alludes to cases in which the council "made a conscientious decision to implement regulations based on their community value rather than an intent for active enforcement."
"Planned community" (PC) developments, for example, do not face the type of scrutiny from code enforcement that the city's own laws require. The "planned community" zone, which grants developers zoning concessions in exchange for "public benefits," has long been a source of frustration for residents who pointed to public benefits that never materialized (the community backlash prompted the council to put a "freeze" on all new PC-zone proposals in 2014). While the city's code calls for the city to inspect each PC-zoned project once per year, that requirement has not been followed. The Planning Department, the audit notes, "has not established a process to meet the three-year inspection cycle and takes enforcement action primarily on a complaint basis."
Similarly, the city does not actively enforce the city's 2017 ban on smoking in multi-family buildings.
And when it comes to monitoring "conditions of approval" for developments, the city has effectively outsourced the function to the developments themselves.
"To efficiently use the limited staff time needed for enforcement, the city started requiring projects to self-monitor certain conditions and report annually on its compliance," the audit states. "However, the city still needs to establish criteria and procedures for verifying the adequacy of self-reported information."