Enforcing Building Codes

Editor, News-Register:

Code Enforcement could also be called Ordinance Enforcement if you really think about it. Since I’ve become a self-appointed citizens’ advocate, it has slowly dawned on me that the majority of issues and complaints I bring to light are all related to a lack of, or selective code/ordinance enforcement. I attribute this in part to being a result of long-serving bureaucrats who have fallen into the trap of taking their jobs as public servants for granted. Actually, some, not all, view citizen complaints as a nuisance that merits little or no serious effort to resolve what the citizen views as a valid complaint.

Why is that? Well, it could be a result of that bureaucrat having served so long that that he or she has assumed the mantle of deciding which complaints have merit and which don’t, and which should be acted upon, and which shouldn’t.

They may have also fallen into a daily routine of going through the motions without really doing much productive work. If that’s the case, it might be their supervisors, and/or department heads, who are not doing their job. They may feel comfortable and secure because they (supervisors and department heads) are not being held accountable.

If that’s the case, then I know where the problem lies. It would be the city manager, since all of the people who work for the city and the taxpayers serve at his will and pleasure.

And if you follow that chain of thought, you have to look at the board of directors (mayor and city council), since they provide the city manager with oversight and directions on how they want the city to move forward.

I recently met with a homeowner who has been trying (for more than a year) to get a severely deteriorated residential structure near his home repaired or razed. Trust me when I say it is an eyesore and blight on the neighborhood. For a period of time when the citizen was complaining and seeking action from the city Code Enforcement department, the structure was unoccupied. Subsequent to the plea for city action, the out-of-state property owner rented the building out and the tenants moved in. A code enforcement officer followed up with an inspection of the property, and last fall sent the owner a letter titled, “Notice of Violation and Order to Remedy Code Violations.” After listing some code violations, the code enforcement officer wrote, and I quote, “I am condemning … as dangerous, unsafe and unfit for human habitation or occupancy, and I intend to placard (on the building)… as Condemned Dangerous and Usafe.” I never saw the sign when I drove by the property.

He went on to say “you (property owner) are required to contact us within 21 days of receipt of this Notice and Order.” I have no information that suggests the out- of-state owner ever contacted the city. It is my understanding that the code enforcement officer permitted the tenant to obtain a building permit while continuing to live in the structure. There are other requirements in the letter that I find interesting. The letter writer states that “it shall be unlawful under the code to sell, transfer, mortgage, lease, or otherwise dispose of the subject property until the provisions of the Order or Notice have been complied with.”

I must have missed something somewhere, since the code enforcement officer apparently took it upon himself (no provision is found in the law or code) to authorize the tenant to continue to occupy the property he just declared in writing to be “unsafe, dangerous, and unfit for human habitation.”

I wonder if his supervisor/department head, city solicitor, and ultimately city manager, mayor and city council are aware of his actions and condone them. In my (not legal) opinion, if anyone occupying that building got sick or injured, and claimed their habitation of the unfit and unsafe building was a cause for that sickness or injury, the city of Wheeling would need a top-notch attorney to defend them in court, since the same code enforcement officer that declared the structure as unsafe, dangerous, and unfit for human occupancy permitted them to continue to occupy the building.

To paraphrase a quote from an article I came across, “City government cannot deliver on its core reason for existing when it has lost sight of its mission of public service.” Code enforcement and compliance should not rely on political clout, your income level, and what neighborhood you reside in. Rather, it should be a universal right to see equal and fair administration of our codes and ordinances.

Hope Springs Eternal!

J. Jacobs



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