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Orange County

Gung-Ho Inspectors Told Their Next Task Is 'Whoa'

April 15, 2002|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County planners are rewriting the rules for code enforcement after an internal review confirmed complaints from rural residents. The complaints say inspectors have behaved like police, arming themselves, racing with flashing lights down twisting back roads and conducting possibly illegal searches.

Richard Zeiler, for one, said he was taken aback when an official-looking white car and a deputy sheriff's vehicle sped up his driveway in remote Williams Canyon last May, lights flashing.

"Whatever it was and whenever it happened, I didn't do it," he recalled joking nervously to a large man who exited the white car. When the man identified himself as a county code-enforcement officer, Zeiler relaxed, slightly.

Zeiler said he explained that the pile of dirt in his frontyard was there because he needed to shore up a low spot that had developed after the main dirt road through the canyon was paved and raised. He'd researched the law, he said, and if you had less than 50 cubic yards of dirt, you didn't need a permit.

When the inspector questioned him about construction work on the house, he said he had permits and offered to go inside and get them.

"You stay right where you are!" barked the sheriff's deputy, placing his hand on his holstered gun, Zeiler recalled.

Zeiler said he stayed put as the code officer wrote him up for illegal grading and earth movement--of 500 cubic yards. He has refused to pay the fines, saying he was perfectly within his rights, and that the code officer and the deputy were wrong.

Complaints about that type of "very heavy-handed" response led to an internal review and redrafting of policy, said Brian Murphy, spokesman for the county Planning and Development Services Department, which oversees the 3-year-old inspection program.

"When we heard about this, we said, 'Whoa, this is not the direction we want to be going,'" Murphy said. "We do not want a law-enforcement image."

Murphy said that although code officers occasionally face hostile property owners, threatening dogs or other risks, the tactics described by Zeiler and other complaining residents were not appropriate. He said the officers would not be available for comment.

As part of the planning department's review, a survey of code enforcement in nearby cities and other Southern California counties was done. None were using a law-enforcement approach except the city of Orange, which has one police officer assigned to it.

Todd Spitzer, the Third District county supervisor, said he ordered the review after hearing complaints from residents of Orange County's rural edge. The code-enforcement staff primarily covers the rural canyons and unincorporated islands in the northern part of the county, including west Anaheim, Santa Ana Heights, El Modena and Midway City.

"On the one hand, you want your code enforcement to be vigorous. On the other hand, you don't want them to overstep their bounds," Spitzer said.

The review, Spitzer said, found that inspectors were arming themselves with pepper spray, bulletproof vests and "saps," which are small, sand-filled weapons sometimes used by police instead of batons. They also were speeding through narrow canyon roads with amber lights flashing, and occasionally were working with armed off-duty sheriff's deputies, he said.

"I mean, they were just acting like cops," said Spitzer.

Murphy, the planning department spokesman, said the amber lights and bulletproof vests have already been taken away, and more changes are coming.

"There were some individuals who were carrying these things on their own. None of this was official-issue equipment," Murphy said.

He said he did not know if any of the officers have been disciplined.

Asked why code enforcement officers would use such equipment and otherwise behave as if they were police, Murphy said, "Sometimes it could be overzealousness. Or they might have suspected something far worse than what they found when they actually got there."

In December, the Board of Supervisors, following recommendations by the planning staff, voted unanimously that the aim of code enforcement officers should be voluntary compliance by residents and that their approach should be administrative.

This week, a manual proposed for adoption will be considered by county agencies and representatives of the public. It recommends that inspectors seek voluntary compliance with building codes first and would require them to obtain search warrants if they were not allowed onto property. Code officers also would be required to wear "business casual" attire, rather than uniforms, and take communication and civil-rights training sessions.

But Murphy warned that for Zeiler--whose case is pending--and others, citations and fines would not disappear because of the way they had been issued.

"In the event it was handled poorly, that still doesn't disqualify [a citation]," Murphy said.

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