Thanks to Heidi Walters for resuming her coverage of a story our media have almost entirely neglected (“Code Cops, Not Real Cops,” Feb. 4). Here’s a bit of what readers have missed between her reports.
A week before Christmas a year ago, three months after the Board of Supervisors had received a scathing 153-page report from their Code Enforcement Task Force containing 17 unanimous recommendations, then-County Administrative Officer and Task Force member Loretta Nickolaus made a staff recommendation to the Board that contradicted what she had previously endorsed. Instead, she recommended moving the scandal-plagued Code Enforcement Unit under the Sheriff’s Office. Since these two branches of law enforcement had been enmeshed in multi-octopusing illegalities, another Task Force member observed that this was “like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.” After spirited public comments, the Board declined to act on her recommendation, and the hot potato was dropped for almost a year.
But over last Thanksgiving weekend, a new staff recommendation went up on the county Web site without notice to Task Force members, for Tuesday action. It said that “[t]he Sheriff is not interested in taking on the CEU” — perhaps an understandable memory lapse after so long — and that the District Attorney would only agree to if he could manage it responsibly, which would cost more than twice the CEU’s current budget. A week before last Christmas, this second alternative to expected reform failed like the previous one a year earlier. Observers continued to wonder why we couldn’t just locker the Code Enforcement Unit’s guns and put the unit back on the job it was created for: nuisance abatement.
Weeks later, this time over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, yet another stealth recommendation for Supervisors appeared. This one posited that, while code inspectors couldn’t have guns because of the expense of responsible supervision, they should still be ex-cops who conduct and supervise criminal investigations and surveillance, prepare criminal warrants and now even enforce federal, state and local codes, which creates an imposing new armory of statute books for our newly disarmed former nuisance-abaters.
Citizens met with Supervisor Clif Clendenen in an attempt to return CEU duties to some semblance of their founding purpose, to no avail. Clif brushed off efforts to de-militarize code-inspector job descriptions and qualifications.
Then something especially strange happened: On the day the county officially accepted that their code inspectors couldn’t have guns — no code inspectors do, anywhere staff surveyed, across 25 counties — the final edits that officialized essentially status quo but buffed-out duties were made from a previously unknown official job description of 2007, which focused almost obsessively on criminal rather than civil investigations and duties. This job description had not been posted on the county Web site as required by law, which made informed citizen input to the Board of Supervisors meeting impossible.
This previously secret job description was the one in force when the Task Force investigated the Code Enforcement Unit. But County Counsel had not divulged it to the Task Force. County Counsel Wendy Chaitin nonetheless used it now as the basis for further militarizing administration of our nuisance abatement program that, before scrutiny began, had stopped taking public complaints of nuisances to abate.
These appeared to be exemplary acts of indifference both to Supervisors’ intelligent oversight, and to county citizens already dubious about staff willingness to act as mere laws dictate. But they won’t be controversial, because almost none of these routine dirty dealings have been reported, or indeed noticed by reporters (or Supervisors) in their wanderings through the courthouse.
I must thank Heidi Walters for being the alpha and omega of meaningful press attention to this long-running cover-up of, to be truthful, heaven knows what. Her article on the nutso code-cop abuses of single mothers and their children made homeless at Yee Haw (“Codes, Damned Codes,” Feb. 28, 2008) gave our communities the perspective we needed to understand and resist further abuse, as told in her next article (“Fear in the Hills,” Apr. 24, 2008). She personifies why journalism matters more and more now that so little of it is left.
Please sirs and ma’ams — can we have some more?
Charley Custer, Redway
Sweet Spot: Charley Custer wins a Bon Boniere sundae for sending our favorite letter of the week.