Code Violators Inevitably Point to Neighbors, But Officials Should Stay on Target

Portland Oregon fire code violations

When caught in a fire code violation, neighbors often lash out at suspected whistleblowers with counter-accusations. Fire officials should expect this reaction, and react professionally.

Nogales fire chief

Balanced Approach. Fire marshall Marcela Hammond of Nogales, AZ has learned to expect finger pointing from code violators—and respond professionally. Photo: Arielle Zionts, Nogales International

I live in a liberal city—Portland, Maine. We’re a city of many rules, and little enforcement. That’s not always a bad thing. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of a violation. A warning or two is fine, but when do the warnings stop and the fines begin?

In Portland, the answer is “almost never.” Code officials, including building inspectors, housing safety officers and fire chiefs, have become so enforcement-averse that on the rare occasion a violation is enforced, it often appears overly aggressive and becomes a news headline. But this hands-off approach has the backing of city politicians, like freshman councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who argues that the goal is a high level of compliance, and that the threat of fines is achieving this goal.

But the problem is, the threat of fines often doesn’t mean squat, once the population realizes they’re empty threats. And that’s exactly what’s happened in Portland.

For example, the rental registration compliance numbers don’t support Thibodeau’s assertion, as this recent article in the Portland Press Herald makes clear.

In fact, thousands of high-priced apartments in the city of Portland are now more than four months overdue paying annual registration fees. The violation fee for those violations, per the City ordinance, is up to $100 per day, per unit, but so far these failed registrations have not led to a single fine, and the program started two years ago. Literally millions of dollars worth of fines have been left on the table, at a time when property taxes are about to shoot up again to make up for budget shortfalls. The ordinance says that any unit that isn’t paid up is not registered, meaning it’s essentially an illegally occupied rental.

I dug a little deeper, and asked Portland Housing Safety Inspections Director Jonathan Rioux, about this failing program, and his answer is that “more letters are being sent out.” When I suggested that sending letters “is not enforcement,” Rioux says he’s currently focused on making the rental registration website more user friendly, not issuing fines.

It’s not just Rioux who is reluctant to enforce the rules on the books in Portland. The fire department is equally skittish. My guess is that part of the reason is that they’re litigation-averse. But who isn’t? Despite getting “burned” by a huge, disastrous fire in Portland a few years ago, citations and fines are rare. That fire took several lives and caused a rethinking of how the city approaches fire code violations. They also caught other bad press in 2015, called out for hundreds of violations that were never addressed.

Three years later, the situation hasn’t improved much. Portland fire officials have created an environment, in my experience, where reporting a fire code violation often results in a backlash, when an angry neighbor—caught in violation—begins making retaliatory accusations. Rather than seem “biased,” fire code officials sometimes “trade” their enforcement of the violation with a promise to the person being compelled that they will ALSO cite a code violation aimed at the reporting neighbor—a “tit for tat” measure aimed at appeasement of the guy who just got caught.

This happened to me, for example, when I asked the Portland fire department to get a neighbor to remove some items obstructing my building’s exit discharge. When the fire department finally came out to enforce this violation, they called me shortly afterward, after talking to the perpetrator’s wife, to issue me a hearsay warning about barbecue grills on my back two decks. I say hearsay, because one deck had no grill on it, and the other had a grill with an empty propane tank, so technically there was no violation. They never actually inspected the decks in person. This sort of “punish the whistleblower” approach to code enforcement is rash and discourages citizens from reporting legitimate issues.

Expect Violator Pushback
An article published in Nogales, Ariz., this week confirms that this “retaliatory” response by neighbors is common. Here’s an excerpt describing a typical day for fire marshall Marcella Hammond:

[Hammond] found a prong of a three-prong plug sticking into a two-prong extension cord, and discovered that the cord was powering an outdoor light.

Hammond explained these violations to Hector Lopez, whose wife is opening the shop, told him he has 10 business days to make the changes and handed him a slip of paper that cited a fire code for each problem and required change. She encouraged him to ask his landlord for help with the fixes.

Lopez, who works at another business on Terrace, protested that many of his neighbors use extension cords on a regular basis.

“He became a little upset, thinking that he has to do all these changes,” Hammond said. “If he wants to call and complain about his neighbor having the same problem, he can, and I’ll come back and enforce it.”

Hammond said most people come to understand why they need to make the changes she cites. Only rarely do they refuse to cooperate. She recalled a man who refused to clear a large pile of merchandise at a business he wanted to open.

“When I say a pile, I mean to the ceiling of this warehouse, and it included tires, appliances, clothing,” Hammond said of the fire hazard. The man said he would move his business elsewhere, but ended up opening the shop without a business license, Hammond said. When that happens, she said, it’s time to contact the building owner or the city’s legal department.

Back at the Hobby Lobby/Marshalls construction site on Friday, Hammond told the contractors and workers to make sure the fire alarm is on test mode while they are doing construction, and ordered them to stop working on the sprinkler system until they had an approved permit.

“Everyday there’s something,” she said. “It’s big problems like this; it’s little problems.

What makes Hammond’s approach different from Portland’s fire officials is that she doesn’t allow one actual code violation “bleed” into a new alleged violation, based on hearsay from an angry perpetrator. Sure, any neighbor can report a violation. But until that violation is fully investigated in person, it’s just an allegation, and should be a treated as a completely different issue to investigate. There’s also the common sense aspect of weighing the credibility of the source. Of course a person being served up a helping of code instruction is looking for someone else to blame. Bad actors hate getting caught.

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