SOUTH GATE — The April 8 City Council election here may be a referendum on city officials' recent attempts to clean up the community and fight illegal garage conversions.
On one side of the issue are three council members seeking reelection to four-year terms. They are Mayor Bill De Witt, 44, Del Snavely, 67, and Herb Cranton, 62.
The incumbents said they support a property maintenance ordinance and a second ordinance that requires mandatory pre-sale inspections of city houses for possible violations of city building and health codes.
The councilmen say the two ordinances prevent the conversion of garages into illegal residences and businesses. The garage conversions, they say, are responsible for overcrowded city schools and overburdened city services such as water and sewers.
On the other side is Dorothea Lombardo, 62, a veteran City Hall critic who has run unsuccessfully for City Council three times. Lombardo, a candidate again, opposes the ordinances.
She said the measures infringe on the rights of taxpayers and duplicate services provided by the county and federal governments. She is leading a petition drive that asks the council to rescind both ordinances. In response, the five-member council is supporting a rival petition drive by another group of residents that supports the ordinances.
Lombardo is a free-lance author who has written a cookbook titled "Some Like It Hot." The book includes recipes for "Hot Pink Pickled Eggs" and "Hot Ice Cream," which calls for mixing vanilla ice cream with Red Hots and a dash of Tabasco sauce. In an interview, she promised to spice up the campaign.
The property maintenance ordinance was passed in 1960, but it was enforced on a complaint-only basis until 1984, when city officials decided to become more aggressive in the war on illegal garage conversions.
The ordinance requires residents to paint houses, mow lawns and keep screens on windows. It also prohibits parking cars, trucks and other vehicles on front yards. The section of the ordinance that has drawn the most objections, however, prohibits conversions of garages into residences or businesses.
To enforce the property maintenance ordinance and other building and health code ordinances, the city this year budgeted $335,000 in federal money to pay for five inspectors. The inspectors drive around the city looking for violations. Usually, the inspectors attempt to convince residents to voluntarily comply with ordinances, city officials said. But the inspectors also have the power to issue citations carrying a penalty upon conviction of up to six months in jail or a maximum fine of $1,000.
Sweep of Hollydale Area
The battle over the property maintenance ordinance began Nov. 16, when city inspectors swept the Hollydale area, one of the city's better residential sections, and cited 40 residents for various infractions. The citations noted 11 illegal garage conversions, unpainted homes, cars parked on front lawns and rummage sales that were held without a license, a violation of the city's business code. The sweep provoked numerous complaints from residents, city officials said.
The pre-sale inspection ordinance, approved last March, gives the city the power to inspect all residences before they are sold. After objections were raised to a proposed $50 inspection fee, the council agreed not to charge residents for the inspection.
In an interview, Lombardo said both ordinances penalize current property owners for violations that frequently were committed by previous property owners.
Lombardo also objected to a section of the property maintenance ordinance that gives city inspectors the right to walk on private property without residents' permission. Also, she said residents should be allowed to convert garages into such uses as darkrooms, which are prohibited under the ordinance.
"It's a beautiful way (for the city) to make money," she said of the property maintenance ordinance.
$400 in Fines
However, Mark Sutton, the city's director of building safety, said the city has taken in only $400 in fines in the past two years. He also said there is no fine if residents voluntarily reconvert their former garages.
About 90% of the residents who are cited for illegal garage conversions voluntarily comply with city laws, Sutton said. The remaining violations are referred to a lawyer hired by the city for prosecution, Sutton said.
Lombardo also argued that the ordinances should be repealed because the city's crusade against illegal garage conversions is unnecessary. Rather than rely on city inspectors, the city should use the county Health Services Department and federal Immigration and Naturalization Service to crack down on illegal residences and businesses, Lombardo said.
The incumbent candidates disagree.