Embracing Code Compliance
New director Carl Smart discusses his goals for a more user-friendly department
Austin Chronicle: As the city gets bigger, this is a department that is going to get a lot of pressure put on it. And you've come from two much bigger cities than Austin, with your time in Atlanta and your time in Fort Worth. So, coming at it from a code compliance point of view, how does Austin compare to those two cities?
Carl Smart: Austin is a unique city, so it's a little difficult to compare directly with Atlanta and with Fort Worth. Austin has its own characteristics. It's a fast-growing city, from what I can see, with a lot of people moving here all the time. It has some unique characteristics like music venues and special events like the [Austin City Limits] Music Festival that was just this weekend and South by Southwest and a host of others that I am just learning about. And the neighborhoods, the communities are different. By being a capital as well as a university city, it has its own special uniqueness. But still, it's neighborhoods, it's people, it's community, and our Code Compliance Department is a department that is poised for more growth, so it can better handle all the issues that come with the city of Austin. I think it's really in a good position to become one of the best code compliance departments in the country, and it will compare with the code compliance departments of Fort Worth and Atlanta. I think we have an opportunity to be a model for the rest of the state and even the rest of the country, if we do it right.
AC: So what's the structure like for the office here, compared to other departments? Because you have the building code side, but also the noise side with the [Public Assembly Code Enforcement] unit. Is that standard, or are they split up elsewhere, and what's your experience with dealing with those seemingly different issues?
CS: We can deal first with PACE. I think PACE is a good unit to have, particularly when you deal with a lot of issues around a major university like the University of Texas, and also when you deal with a lot of special events. The city of Atlanta found there were times when you needed an interdepartmental task force in order to deal with certain types of issues. And around the university you've got a lot of unrelated persons living in single-family neighborhoods, you've got issues of parking and noise and other code-type problems, so you put a task team to work together and work collaboratively. The same thing happens with special events. I think PACE is a good idea, and we'll look at how we can better use PACE and better staff PACE going forward.
But the overall structure of Code Compliance is geographic based. We've got teams set up. A team to handle the north side, south, west, east, and those teams are investigators, code enforcement officers, with support staff, and they deal with their area. You deal with the code violations and the complaints that come out of that area. Again, a geographic base is a fairly normal way of doing that. Folks get to know their area, know the area well, get to know the people in the area, get to know the properties in the area, and so they can respond more effectively. When a problem comes up lot of times they already know about that particular property, they've seen it, they've passed it in their day-to-day operations, so they can respond and deal with it effectively. I think that's good. The other issue is what specialties may be overlapping the general inspectors out there.
AC: One of the core, almost philosophical questions about how Code Compliance should operate is that, because it's been such a small department, historically it's been complaint-driven. I just want to get your take on using a complaint-driven process and how that fits together with staffing size and what ideally you would like.
CS: I think that complaint-driven is the norm for code enforcement around the country. The first thing you do is set up a staff and try to get enough staff to respond to the complaints that you get. That's the norm, but that's not ideal. The ideal is to be proactive as well as reactive and try to find that balance between the two, where you can be reactive and respond to all of your complaints, plus you can do proactive work to make sure that you do prevention and maintenance and keep a lot of problems from becoming worse by catching those problems early and working with property owners. Ideally, that's what we would like to have here in Austin. Not just reactive, but a proactive organization. Now that brings in budgetary issues, because you've got to have enough staff to handle the reactive, plus have staff to be proactive too, and so we'll have to deal with that and be sensitive to the cost of developing that kind of organization. We'll do it a little at a time. We're not going to be able to get there overnight, but we can do it in progressive steps.
AC: Does that need to be anonymous, or does it need to be a system where the city protects anonymity?
CS: I've always supported taking anonymous complaints, but where I draw the line is where you get abusive with those complaints. The normal way you take complaints is, citizen has a problem with their neighbor, or citizen has a problem with someone in their neighborhood, they call it in and realize that the city will respond, take a look at it, and, if there's a violation, implement a process to get the violation taken care of. That's a good system. What's bad is when people start abusing that system. You could stop the system. You could put in a system where you have to have a name, an address, something like that, to show that you live in the neighborhood or you live in the city of Austin before we'd take that complaint. You could make that requirement. Some cities have gone so far as to even require that complaints are written before they'll respond. I'm not sure that's the right way to go in Austin, but there are some cities that put that into place. I think the answer initially is just that we try to identify those instances of abuse and deal with those individual situations. But if we start to see that that abuse is widespread, then we need to change our process.
AC: How do you currently track that? Is it just that the same addresses keep turning up in the system, or the same thematic stuff?
CS: Yeah. The complaints come through 311, and I think that's a pretty good system, where anyone out there that has a code enforcement problem can just call 311 and describe the problem and describe the location and know that Code [Compliance] will come out and respond. 311 is able to watch for abuse. They identified clearly when there was a bulk caller who would call in constantly, address after address after address. The problem wasn't very specific. They would just give some general problem at a particular location, and after a while it became apparent that the person was just getting locations off [geographic information system] software, just pulling them off Google Maps. They were able to tell that right there in the 311 with the operators who take these calls day after day. They could tell the voice was the same voice that had called in to complain the one before.
Another way we monitor is, if the inspector gets a complaint, goes out, it's invalid, gets another complaint, same area, goes out, it's invalid and you start getting a repeat of invalid complaints, then you know you've got a problem, particularly if it's coming from an anonymous person. If it's coming from someone who gives a name, you can always call them back and talk to them, and we prefer that. We can call the complainant back and find out, "Maybe I missed something – I didn't see the trash that you were talking about." And then they tell you, "Well, it's in the backyard, not the side yard." You can have that kind of communication if the person gives their name and stuff like that. If they don't, there's no way to respond.
AC: I don't want to get you on individual cases, but let's use them as stepping off points. One of the issues that was raised a couple of years ago, which was before your time, was the Enchanted Forest. PACE came in to inspect and found some code violations, but Enchanted Forest's argument was that it had its permits approved, and it had just been a reupping process. How big do you have to be to be in a position where people can't just say, "But the permit said I was OK"?
CS: That's a good question. It basically takes a lot of internal collaboration, communication between departments. Our PDR, Planning and Development Review Department, handles all of the permitting, while the Code Compliance Department handles the enforcement and the inspections out in the field. So those two departments, just as an example. There's others. We can talk about Austin Water and Austin Energy and Solid Waste – I mean Austin Resource Recovery – you can talk about those departments, but let's just take PDR and Code Compliance. Those departments have got to work together so that PDR is issuing the permits properly and Code Compliance has access on a daily basis and can actually get out there and do inspections properly. It really takes that collaborative effort to get that right. What's the right size of the staffing in order to do that? That's something we have to study. We just have to look at the neighborhood, look at the volume of permits, look at the volume of complaints we're getting in, and look at what's actually happening in the neighborhood, and what will it take in order to deal effectively with those problems. That's the kind of thing we are looking at and will continue to look at over the next few months and make adjustments as necessary. In some cases, we're going to have to go to City Council and ask for additional resources, and looking at the cost of those and looking at potential funding resources.
The whole teamwork process, it's not just internal; it's external. You've got neighborhood associations out there, you've got nonprofit organizations out there, you've got neighborhood leaders, you've got council members, you've got a lot of different stakeholders out there who know what's going on in the neighborhood too, who are very much aware. So working together with them and [trying] to find solutions, not just do enforcement. Some cases, you've got to do enforcement, you've got to issue notices, you've got to issue affidavits, you've got to go to court in some cases. But if you work with us, a lot of times we can get take care of the problems and get the compliance without doing all the legal stuff.
AC: There's this question about the line between being an enforcement agency and an agency that works with people, and we've had a few cases, like Laura Croteau and her Wildlife Habitat yard, where people haven't felt that the interpersonal skills have been there in your agency. This is a concern that Chris Riley has had about things like phoning ahead and not just turning up. How does the department get better at that?
CS: Well, I think training is one way. What you're talking about is interactive skills and being able to interact effectively with business owners, tenants, [and] citizens in general. A code enforcement officer has to have those skills. You gotta know the codes and have the technical skills to handle the codes and what you see out in the field, but you've got to have those interpersonal skills to be able to communicate with all kinds of people, which is another thing about Austin. You've got a lot of different sorts of people here, all diverse, but all requiring good communication and being able to work with them. So training is going to be key, and setting up procedures and policies so that folks know how they're supposed to interact with people in the field.
What it comes down to is compliance. It really helps us to get compliance if you have this effective communications. An example is one of the programs I like, which is very simple. It's called "Stop and Knock," and it's just that. Stop your car, knock on the door, talk to somebody. Don't just drive by, write a violation, send a notice in the mail. I call that drive-by code enforcement, and we don't want to do that. Stop and knock, talk to folks, explain why you're there, explain what the problem is if there's a complaint or something. Talk about it, and listen to them, and also explain what they would need to do in order to take care of the problem. A lot of times, by the time you can get a notice issued, the problem's been taken care of just because now they're aware. "Oh, I didn't realize that was a code, so now I'll take care of that problem." So that's good, effective code enforcement.
AC: To a certain degree, there's going to be a cost saving.
AC: I don't think that yours is an agency that's going to come out with an in-the-black balance sheet at the end of the year.
CS: Absolutely. The staff time it takes to push a case through to municipal court, you can save a lot of time and save a lot of money. We're not in the business of trying to penalize or punish. We're here to ensure compliance with the code and make the quality of life better in the neighborhoods for everybody. So as long as we can focus on the goal, everything else is secondary.
AC: There's also an element where you guys are always going to be the bad guys anyway. By the time you're there, something has usually gone wrong, which comes again to this question of communication with other departments. So to go back to Laura Croteau, one of the things she talked about was that she felt there was this schizophrenia from this building. On one side she's got the wildlife people telling her she's doing a great job, and on the other she's got you guys saying there's a compliance issue. How do you solve that from an interagency point of view?
CS: Again, cooperation, communication, collaboration between departments. That's a good example of code compliance working primarily with Parks [and Recreation], because Parks is primarily responsible for the wildlife certification, Code Compliance is responsible for making sure that properties meet the high grass and weeds ordinance. In addition, there's an ordinance relating to visibility at corners, and that sometimes is an issue, particularly in the right-of-way adjacent to the property at the corner. The right-of-way has to be clear so vehicles can see around that corner and it's not a safety hazard. So, does the safety hazard trump the wildlife certification? Two departments working together can work that out. That case pointed out the need for that kind of communication and collaboration, and now we've got Parks and Code Compliance sitting down and working together, talking about: "OK, at council direction, take a look at the wildlife certification requirements and the code requirements, and see if there are any conflicts. If there are conflicts, let's work it out and resolve it." Strategic planning is part of the process for looking at the vision for Code Compliance. We're getting our management team together next month, and getting away to a location where we can just focus on a strategic plan for Code Compliance. We will be looking at training needs; we'll be looking at any kind of organizational requirements; we'll be looking at working in teams with other departments and, overall, looking at ways we can improve Code Compliance, our delivery of service, and our working together closely with neighborhoods and communities. I think that, after we get that strategic plan in place, folks will see some real positive changes in Code Compliance.
AC: That will be the first real chance for you to look at what you've achieved so far, but you've been here two months. How have those first two months gone for you personally?
CS: Learning curve? Steep. I've been getting to know my department and meeting with the different teams and the divisions within the department, and finding out what the issues are and what the concerns are, and getting input from employees on things that we have to focus on in order to improve the department. But I've also been reaching out and meeting with other department heads and [assistant city managers]. Wednesday, I'm meeting with the Austin Neighborhoods Council, and I've met with the Austin Home Repair Coalition. Meeting with different groups and getting to know how we can work together in order to make some good things happen. So two months have really gone by pretty fast, and I've got more of that kind of work to do. I want to get out into the neighborhoods.
One way of getting out, October has been declared National Code Enforcement Month, and so we'll be out there, all the Code Compliance staff including myself, on a national night out, and we'll be going to different neighborhood associations and their events. That next morning, the morning of October 5th, we'll be working with Safe Routes to Schools, so we'll be looking at the routes children take to get to schools and see what we can do to make sure that those routes are clean and safe. So I think the key is just getting out there and continuing to do that. Particularly over the next few months, but I'll probably do it throughout. You've got to have your finger on the pulse, so to speak, and the only way to do that is get out into the neighborhoods and let them talk to you. Be ready and willing to listen to what the citizens have to say, and then respond, and hopefully they will see positive changes and realize that code enforcement is not always negative – it can be a very positive thing. We have to make that clear: "We're working for you. What do you expect from us? You expect us to help keep your neighborhoods clean, safe, healthy, then that's what we're going to try to do."
AC: But there's something endemic in code enforcement, that you're going to get dragged into neighborhood and neighbor-on-neighbor feuds. You'll have a cluster of complaints, either around an individual property or in an area, and where you've got that kind of situation, how do you not get caught up in that, particularly if you're going to be complaint-driven?
CS: We do have to watch for abuse of the complaint process. You try to keep it as open as possible, meaning anyone who has a complaint can call in and request service from the department, and you can call in anonymously. Most cities try to protect that anonymity, allow you to do that anonymously and they will respond, realizing that it's just a complaint until the office confirms a violation. It's not a violation until the office confirms that it is, so that's one way you can protect the citizens. Anyone can call a complaint on anyone, but it's not a violation until we say it is. But, at the same time, some folks have found a way to abuse that system. You can abuse it by calling in invalid complaints, or just going around looking for stuff and calling multiple complaints. We've had a bulk caller call in thousands of complaints over a period of time. That's abusing that system, so we have to watch for that kind of abuse and take action to stop it. If we can find out who's calling, [we can] talk to them and say, "No, we need some balance here." Or if someone is calling in a whole lot of complaints anonymously, sometimes we have to put a stop to that. We just have to find a balance in that.
There are situations where you end up with a complaint about a whole area, and I think we've got to handle it in a special way. An example is the Fairview neighborhood. That's a special situation, and we've got to handle it in a special way. We've got to see what the problem is, what caused that problem, why [were] there a number of additions done without permits? Was there a period of time when we just weren't checking those or something? What caused that problem, and now what kind of special remedies can be put in place to work with those property owners and get in compliance. I think that's the key. You can't turn your back on it, but at the same time you've got to be willing to get creative and work with folks in order to come up with an answer for it.
AC: With some of those issues, and it's the general story of Austin, we've gone from the traditional sleepy college town people talked about in the 1970s to what it is now, which is the 16th biggest city in America. The laissez-faire attitude of 20, 25, 30 years ago doesn't float, and it seems like, in Fairview, that's part of that historic time bomb. How does that compare to the other cities you've worked in, and is Austin as different as it likes to think?
CS: Well, it is different, but I've seen some of that in other places. In Fort Worth, in Atlanta, and even in Gainesville, Florida, which was smaller but it has a major university there too, the University of Florida. Code enforcement is a cyclical-type industry. You have times when elected officials want really strong code enforcement. For example, after a hurricane. In Florida, you had Hurricane Andrew back in the early '90s, and after Hurricane Andrew, everyone looked at the codes and said, "Wait a minute, we need stronger, more strict enforcement of codes." So Florida changed its code laws. It got stronger and stricter and enhanced its enforcement of those laws, putting in place code enforcement boards, that kind of thing. But after a while, things were going well, and they started to slack off and say: "We don't need that much code enforcement. Ease up some." Same thing happens with permitting and permit review and site plans, et cetera. But then if something goes wrong, you're stronger and you're stricter. That's not unusual for cities, and, to a certain degree, it's probably happened here in Austin.
AC: You've inherited a relatively fresh department, and you have a chance to put your stamp on it. What are the things that you are looking to do with it, and are there any solid steps that you have up your sleeve that you would like to roll out?
CS: I think one is the focus on training, with the idea that we can make our officers some of the best trained. When they understand the codes extremely well, to the extent that they can easily explain them to the average citizen, I think that would help enhance compliance and help make a better code enforcement staff, ones that are really exceptionally trained. We'll put a lot of emphasis on customer service, identifying clearly who our customers are out there, looking at what are their needs and what are their expectations from us, and looking at how we can meet those needs is going to be key. Some code enforcement agencies don't really understand that homeowners and tenants and citizens out there are your customers, and we want to make that clear with our department. The other thing is teamwork, internal teams and external teams, and we have to realize that in order to get things done we can't do it by ourselves. We can issue notices all day long, but you may not get compliance because there are other areas affecting people's ability to comply. And there are other areas where you're going to need assistance programs. You're going to need housing repair assistance, you're going to need the Parks Department, you're going to need [Austin Resource Recovery], you're going to need [Planning and Development Review], et cetera. So looking at that whole concept of teamwork, of how to work as a team and how to form teams and be effective as teams. The other thing is going to be the continuous improvement, and that's where the training comes in. We've got a good training staff in-house, but we'll also bring in other instructors to help, and I just think we'll start to see overall professionalism grow.
Additionally, we've embraced both the name and the concept of Code Compliance. We'll do that. There's been some concern and some confusion even, why are we called Code Compliance instead of code enforcement, and we want to get that all clarified, that everyone understands that the goal is compliance. We are a code enforcement agency, there's no doubt about it, that's what we do, but code compliance is the goal and so we'll put that focus on the goal and keep that there. We'll look at all the code compliance tools that are in your toolbox. It's not just the notices and citations, et cetera, but it's also education and all the informal meetings, and stopping and knocking, and talking with people, and talking with neighborhood associations and ... property owners that will get you to the goal, and the goal being compliance. We'll also be looking at what programs we'll need in order to enhance that. We've got the geographic base code inspection staff, but what special programs do we need to overlap that to get that done. One, for example, might be the volunteer program, where you have volunteer citizens that actually help with code enforcement. That's worked well in some areas. In Fort Worth, for example, we implemented the Code Rangers program. Code Rangers was working well, but we didn't think that would work at first. Who'd want to volunteer to help code enforcement? But they would volunteer to help their neighbors. That's the difference. Helping to do code enforcement would help my neighborhood, so they're for it. So looking at those kind of programs that overlap and support what we're doing with the inspection program.