Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Fixing L.A.'s municipal code mess

It's time for the city to try a pilot program that treats some local criminal code violations the same way it treats parking tickets.

City Atty. Carmen Trutanich proposed the Administrative Citation Enforcement program for some Municipal Code violations.  (Los Angeles Times)
City Atty. Carmen Trutanich proposed the Administrative Citation Enforcement program for some Municipal Code violations. (Los Angeles Times)

September 26, 2011
For months now, city officials have been mulling whether to try out an alternative system for enforcing the Los Angeles Municipal Code — the register of offenses that includes nuisances and quality-of-life crimes such as parties that are too loud, and public safety violations such as construction without permits. It takes too long and costs prosecutors too much to go to court on each violation. Can't Los Angeles decriminalize many of these offenses and issue administrative citations much like parking tickets?

That's the idea behind the Administrative Citation Enforcement program, which has been shaped by City Atty. Carmen Trutanich and brought to the City Council on a motion by Councilman Paul Koretz. In its original concept, the program would result in resolution of cases more swiftly. It would treat residents more equally. It would produce more revenue for the city, because the largest cut of administrative fines would be paid into city coffers, unlike criminal fines that go through the court system and are paid to the state. It would provide an alternative to the byzantine and bureaucratic maze of hearings and appeals, differing from offense to offense mostly because of arcane rules about which city department handles the problem (does the appeal go first to the director of the Department of Building and Safety, and then to the obscure board of commissioners, or to a zoning administrator, or to the planning director and one of the many area planning commissions?). It would make better and more efficient use of city personnel, and would help unclog the overburdened and underfunded court system by eliminating criminal hearings in favor of an administrative process.

So what's taking so long? At first, the city departments that would be responsible for processing citations were uninterested and failed to offer any help in shaping the program. Some residents — especially those who have learned to master the current system, and who know which codes will never actually be enforced and which fines will never actually be imposed — opposed any changes. Some council members dismissed the program, inexplicably, as a power grab by Trutanich. Some neighborhood council leaders thought they should be the ones to make decisions about which neighbors are the troublemakers who ought to get cited for fences that are too high and which are the put-upon victims of overzealous code enforcers.

Then, upon crunching some numbers and checking with California's many other cities that have a similar program, officials discovered that there really wouldn't be much new revenue. The concern was rather that the fines collected might not even cover the new costs of administrative law judges and other program expenses. Experience suggests that many city departments — most, perhaps — might not be up to the task of keeping records and examining data to determine whether the program was a success. And as much as politicians, bureaucrats and residents love to gripe about the status quo, no one is really all that fond of change, especially when it requires some effort. So why bother?

There can be only one answer to all the frustrating shoulder-shrugging: Get on with it.

The Administrative Citation Program — ACE, for short — is a good idea. It works in many cities that have their bureaucratic acts together, and it can work in Los Angeles too, especially with some badly needed leadership and administrative competence.

By the time the council's Budget and Finance Committee has finished with the ACE proposal Monday, it may be whittled down to a pilot program that covers only citations issued by the Los Angeles Police Department. The Building and Safety, Animal Services and other departments that respond to public safety and nuisance complaints will probably stick to the broken old ways for now, and that's fine. The LAPD is almost unique among city departments in that it can actually keep records and track data.

Some skeptical council members may demand monthly reports, and that's fine too. The LAPD is up to it. Police officers will still spend the bulk of their time protecting residents against threats of violent crime, but officers who in the course of their duties have the time to respond to noisy parties and similar problems would be able to issue administrative citations. The LAPD can demonstrate for the rest of City Hall that problems can be addressed without resort to criminal filings and court hearings (although residents who have exhausted their administrative appeals would still be able to appeal to the court).

In the short term, costs will be held down by Trutanich's office, which will recruit volunteers to serve as hearing officers. Once the city attorney and the LAPD demonstrate that the program can work, and can produce at least some revenue, the city will have to hire administrative law judges. The pilot program does not tie the city to any later expenses.

Trying out an administrative enforcement program is, almost literally, the least City Hall can do. Much more is required. Los Angeles' enforcement of basic quality-of-life and public safety violations is a mess. People who know how to work the system, or who hire expediters and fixers who know, get special treatment. A Gold Card desk at the Transportation Department, ostensibly open to all, provided privileged service to a select group of knowledgeable parking violators before the city shut it down earlier this year. Drivers caught by so-called red-light cameras either paid the tickets they got in the mail, if they didn't know any better, or ignored them, if they realized there were virtually no consequences for refusing to pay. An extensive federal probe has resulted, so far, in guilty pleas from two building inspectors, and about a dozen more are being investigated.

The crucial ingredient is leadership. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa must set a tone of fairness, efficiency and professionalism in the city's operations, and not merely fire general managers when their departments have proved embarrassing. He must not allow City Hall to remain merely a collection of departments, each scrambling to survive budget cuts while sticking to its operating comfort zone.

Better code enforcement can't solve the city's problems by itself, especially on such a modest scale. But it is a step. It is a start. Get on with it.
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

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