Self-Service Database Links City Codes to Permits, for Better or Worse

Embracing Transparency. Cities across the U.S. are adopting the new transparent management software. This promotion is from McKinnney, Texas.

Public-facing online access leaves little room for arbitrary code enforcement.

The field of “community development software” has become far more robust in recent years, so much so that the level of transparency may terrify Old School administrators.

One of the best systems is offered by EnerGov, and is called Citizen Self Service (CSS), an unfortunate abbreviation, not to be confused with Cascading Style Sheets. What this service does it connects ALL of the dots of the building process, from permit to inspections to final approvals—and throws open the book for all to see.

In our view, this is a great idea. It helps honest contractors stay on top of their game, and it identifies shady operators, pinpoints violations and yes, can feel a little like Big Brother. But this is the new reality of big data.

With CSS and systems like it, citizens have unprecedented, instant access to official documents and data. This changes the game dramatically for those used to having a lot of license to make arbitrary calls on code and ordinance violations. Here are just a couple of examples.

Fire Code Liability

Let’s say you’re a fire department chief in a city using CSS. You get an email from a building owner, notifying you of a possible code violation at a construction project. The letter is digitally filed and connected to the address of the project.

You now have little choice but to investigate and address the violation in writing. The permit, inspections, email complaint, and your response are all part of the same interconnected data. In the unlikely event of a fire, your response or non-response will be part of the public record, accessible to everyone.

Non-Enforcement of Ordinance Violations

Another sticky area is the question of enforcing specific violations. The question of whether municipalities have a responsibility to issue fines when ordinances are violated is not clear. In Maine, where I live, municipal code enforcement officers are supposed to have special training.

According to Spencer Thibodeau, city councilor from Portland, Maine, fines and punitive measures related to city ordinances are meant to be used as an incentive to bring about high levels of compliance, not hard and fast laws to enforce.

“If you’re getting compliance in the area of 70 percent, that’s considered pretty good,” Thibodeau says. “And I think Portland’s compliance level was about there, but I’ll have to get back to you.”

You can see where this approach might confuse the general public, especially those who do comply with the rules.

I stumbled into an example of this recently in Portland, while checking up to make sure they received my annual rental registration fees. The city created a new housing safety office back in 2014, including a custom-built database where you can track whether every building owner has paid his/her annual fee.

But the municipal database isn’t working-yet. So I asked the office to check on a few rental buildings in my neighborhood. None of them had paid their annual fee. That put them 21 days past the registration deadline, to the tune of $100 per day per unit in violation fees. One of the landlords operates 900 units in the city.

I quickly did the math. Imagine if this violation were city-wide (a functioning CSS system would tell me this instantly), and were enforced. This landlord alone might pay $1.89 million in fines ($2,100 for 21 days overdue, times 900 units) so far this year. You can imagine that while some citizens might feel it’s reasonable to cut the landlord some slack (and give him more time) without fines, others might see this as cronyism, and leaving a lot of potential public money on the table. Those fines would pay a lot of firefighter salaries. Non-enforcement can easily be seen as an unfair system that protects wealthy landlords, who can sit on registration fees and collect interest on that money—at the same time raising rents in the name of the fees. Those who paid their dues diligently on time may resent this unfairness.

Such is the nature of transparency. CSS and systems like it are coming fast. It’s time to get your municipal house in order.

If you want an example of a town that’s already using CSS to its full potential, visit the Sioux Falls, South Dakota website.