ER - DA rescinds code enforcement officers’ police powers

Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos said he has rescinded the Code Enforcement Unit officers’ police powers granted under his authority, but county staff said the move doesn’t stick.

The county’s Code Enforcement Unit controversy has been broiling publicly since April 4 when the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project held a town hall meeting in Garberville to hear rural residents’ allegations of excessive police force to remedy building code violations.

While it is not directly in response to that meeting, Gallegos said Wednesday that he doesn’t want the “life-and-death” responsibility to deputize those officers who could shoot someone or may be shot if he has no authority over them.

“To ask me to deputize someone with those responsibilities and to have no oversight over them is wrong,” Gallegos said. “I refuse to participate in that.”

As he told hundreds of angry residents at the CLMP meeting, Gallegos said he’s been concerned for a long time about the arrangement he inherited when elected and has been in discussions for months with the County Counsel’s Office to find a solution.

Interim County Counsel Wendy Chaitin, whose office oversees the Code Enforcement Unit’s two armed officers, said Wednesday that Gallegos’ action isn’t so simple.

She and other county administrators don’t believe the officers’ police powers have been stripped because of Gallegos’ action to rescind his authority.

However, because the DA doesn’t want to participate in the current structure where he deputizes her employees, Chaitin said she voluntarily agreed last week to disarm Code Enforcement officers Jeff Conner and John Desadier while everything is being sorted out.

“We are all in discussions and are working on ways to best structure the unit,” Chaitin said.

Also in agreement that the DA’s action doesn’t rescind the officer’s deputized status is County Administrative Officer Loretta Nickolaus, who said she learned of Gallegos’ announcement in an e-mail circulated Wednesday.

Nickolaus said the DA can’t direct personnel actions for employees not under his control.

That’s not how Gallegos sees it and he said the intent of his action was to remove the Code Enforcement Unit officers’ weapons and badges under his authority, which he said he believes he’s effectively done.

Despite the apparent inter-department conflict, Gallegos said he supports Chaitin, the Code Enforcement Unit and the work they are trying to do, although he might not necessarily support everything they have done.

While he listened to residents’ complaints during the CLMP meeting, Gallegos said his reversal has nothing to do with the officers.

“I am not saying they have done anything wrong,” Gallegos said.

Code Enforcement Unit activity is under a limited 45-day moratorium and its officers cannot engage in actions where search warrants are needed.

The Board of Supervisors ordered the moratorium and directed a Code Enforcement Unit Task Force to be formed to investigate the unit’s use-of-force policies and procedures following a meeting April 8 where hundreds of residents turned out to repeat the concerns raised during the Garberville meeting the previous week.

Reached Wednesday in Redding, Board of Supervisors Chairperson Jill Geist said she was learning about the DA’s decision from media.

“To the best of my knowledge, there has been no formal request from the District Attorney’s Office to the board or the CAO’s Office regarding the code enforcement officers,” Geist said.

Geist said these were the issues she hoped would be the topics discussed by the task force, of which she and Supervisor Roger Rodoni are both members.

During their meeting Tuesday, the supervisors picked three at-large members to complete the nine-member task force, although no meetings have yet been held.

The code enforcement officers are moving forward with the more routine nuisance and cleanup abatement cases, which county officials say represent the majority of the code enforcement workload and don’t require armed officers.

All the county officials reached for this article agree the Code Enforcement Unit’s current cross-deputization structure between the DA and the County Counsel’s Office needs to be examined, which is expected to be done both internally and in the parallel process under the task force.

Just how the issue will be resolved is uncertain, but Gallegos offered his preference for where the code enforcement officers should end up.

Because the officers are armed and due to the nature of their work, Gallegos said he believes code enforcement might better fall under his direction.

“It’s a natural fit in this office,” Gallegos said.

If they were assigned to work under him as investigators, Gallegos said he would deputize them.

“But as it stands right now, the arrangement isn’t good for anyone,” Gallegos said.

DA rescinds code enforcement officers’ police powers
By NATHAN RUSHTON, The Eureka Reporter
Published: Apr 23 2008, 11:21 PM