4.25.2008

McKP - Mintz on Code Enforcement

Capping a process that has been ongoing but was quickened by recent controversies, District Attorney Paul Gallegos has notified the county that he’s rescinded the deputy DA status of code enforcement officers.

Collaborations between the county’s two-man Code Enforcement Unit and police has triggered criticism and at a recent community meeting in Garberville and an April 8 Board of Supervisors hearing, it was loud and impassioned. Supervisors responded to it by ordering a 45-day stop to code inspections done under warrants, and Gallegos has informed the county he’s done something he says he’s been trying to do for awhile – remove code officers’ deputy DA status.

Members of the Code Enforcement Unit carry guns and have police authority under the deputization, which has been in place since 1994. The code unit operates as an arm of the County Counsel’s Office, however, not under Gallegos. It has become a conspicuous issue with dissatisfaction over the handling of recent warrant actions by code unit officers accompanied by Sheriff’s deputies.

At the April 4 Garberville meeting organized by the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project (CLMP), hundreds of residents vented and questioned a panel of law enforcers that included Gallegos and Jeff Conner, one of his deputies. Gallegos was pointedly asked about his office’s deputization of code officers, and he told a sometimes hostile crowd that it’s an arrangement he also has doubts about.

“It was suggested that since I do not have authority of the investigators, that I rescind my deputization authority. I said that was a fair request because I thought it was,” Gallegos said in an e-mail exchange. “Accordingly, after that meeting, I notified county counsel that I was rescinding my deputization of County Counsel’s Investigators.”

In an interview last week, Sheriff Gary Philp said he’s also concerned about how his deputies are supervised when they work with the code unit. The teaming of code officers and his deputies has become “more and more frequent,” he continued.

How Gallegos’s decision will be implemented is somewhat uncertain. Assistant County Administrative Officer Philip Smith Hanes said there has been internal discussion on it, but no resolution. “I believe where the issue was left is that (code officers) are just not going to carry guns under Paul’s authority until we get this straightened out,” he continued.

Gallegos said he has tried to change the way things are done and took action after a series of code unit/police encounters with residents of the Elk Ridge and Woods Ranch areas inflamed the issue. “There have been discussions about deputization being done by the Sheriff’s office instead of my office because if I am going to deputize them, I want them as my employees,” Gallegos said. “There was delay. Then there was delay. Then there were the incidents in Southern Humboldt.”

Gallegos explained why he took action. “I did not do because I believe they or anyone did anything wrong,” he said. “I am not in a position to say whether they did or did not. Nor should my action be seen as indicating that, if they became my employees, I would not deputize them to allow them to carry firearms. That would depend on the nature of their work and the need for such weapons. It was done because I felt I could not allow the arrangement which I perceived to be ill-conceived, at least as it related to my responsibility and authority, to continue any longer.”

Asked about the incidents people have complained about, he said, “I have done some cursory informal inquiries into some of the incidents but have not reviewed any report yet.”

County Counsel Wendy Chaitin was out of town and unavailable for comment. Members of the code unit have declined comment. Richard Hendry, a deputy county counsel and deputy DA who represents the county in code enforcement cases, said that he wasn’t at the Garberville meeting, but he did hear the public testimony at the April 8 supervisors hearing.

None of the departments involved were asked to respond to it, and Hendry questioned the accuracy of the portrayals. “I think there’s been misconception, to a great extent, on what happened and who was involved,” he said. “Some of the descriptions of what took place didn’t happen the way they were portrayed.”

The code unit’s actions and its cases are reviewed every month by an oversight committee made up of the county’s environmental health director, county counsel, the DA’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department and the chief building inspector. Hendry added that the code unit operates under a policies and procedures manual, whose contents have been under review for about a year. “We’ve been looking at it and thinking of ways to improve the program, and in light of recent public hearings, that’s something we need to continue to do,” he said.

Policy and procedure changes are likely to be recommended by the task force that will convene during the 45-day warrant inspection freeze. Made up of three members of CLMP, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jill Geist, Supervisors Roger Rodoni, the county’s administrative office and three “at large” members appointed by supervisors, the task force will be authorized at this week’s supervisors meeting. That action marks the start of the 45-day moratorium.

At the April 15 supervisors meeting, a previous approval of the moratorium was clarified as not being applicable to code inspections that are done under property owners’ consent. Roby Tenorio of CLMP told supervisors that the involvement of police – and guns – is the root of the controversy.

“Our main concern is the use of law enforcement and the lack coordinated supervision,” she said, adding that the situation opens “potential for a very, very serious problem.”

By Daniel Mintz
Press Staff Writer