Nov. 15, 2012
Tiobe Barron, OVN correspondent
City staff receive some clarity from the Ojai City Council regarding what some residents say is its selective enforcement of suspected zoning violations.
Currently code violations within the city are addressed on a complaint-driven basis.
“This is a really challenging item for all city staffs, but especially ours,” said community development director Rob Mullane. “We only have three staff members, and there have been 68 complaints this year alone.”
Ojai resident Kathy Zotnowski, whose family has been dealing with a complaint filed against them, threatened to flood Mullane’s department with “50 complaints,” then 50 more after that unless the City changed its policy on code violation complaints.
“68 complaints is taxing on your staff? I have 50 complaints right here,” said Zotnowski. “This is not the road we want to take. We don’t want to now be the reporter of neighbors who have violations. We feel we would rather enjoy the same rights as our neighbors to have structures, for the inequities to be dealt with through the zoning code being reviewed.”
Ojai resident Phil Neme suggested the city utilize mediation to resolve complaint issues; he offered his services as a trained mediator to navigate disputes between neighbors, and said he could train a group of volunteers to do the same — something he claims the city of Los Angeles uses in its code enforcement.
“Most of the time it is not about the complaint, but some other issue” when a neighbor reports a violation, said Neme.
“I don’t know how you mediate a violation,” countered Mayor Pro Tem Paul Blatz. “Either it is a violation, or it’s not.”
Councilwoman Carlon Strobel had plenty of advice and direction for Mullane and his department, suggesting the department issue something in writing for each violation the department addresses.
“I so oppose ‘Well, I talked to him,’” said Strobel. “I want a process in place, and I want it used. I don’t want discretion in there. Let’s enforce our codes because they exist. Let’s have the city be responsible instead of our citizens. The only way we can start changing that culture (of non-compliance) is to be consistent.”
Mayor Betsy Clapp had other concerns, worrying that the city could potentially face litigation for selective enforcement.
As long as it is “based on limited resources, you are not going to have a problem with selective enforcement claims,” clarified assistant city attorney Scott Howard. Howard also maintained that code violation complaints are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, as disclosing names and addresses of the people filing complaints enables the potential for retaliation.
No action was taken on the issue at this meeting, though city manager Rob Clark assured council members that city staff had received “plenty of direction” on how the department should proceed.
Council did, however, take action to enter into a contract with consultant Thomas Figg — to the tune of nearly $20,000 — in order to proceed with the implementation programs required by the state for the 2006-2014 housing element. He will help the city proceed with the implementation the housing element, assisting them in proving that the city could, if required, allowing the construction of the number of housing units the state has mandated.
The city received three bids for the contract and Figg’s won.
“I have been really happy with Figg’s services. He is very independent and easy to manage,” said Mullane. “He has a track record of performance with his work.”
“You don’t change horses at this very last stage,” agreed Councilwoman Carol Smith. “We are better off sticking with Mr. Figg for this last bit.”
The city will also be expending more funds — nearly $35,000 — to complete the Fulton Street extension project, linking it to Bryant Street.
Edison revised the utility alignment, which added more than $6,000 to the cost of the project, explained Clark. “When the excavation began, a whole bunch of buried concrete had to be removed, and we have to acquire dirt to replace it.” Clark said earlier this year that the project would be completed before Christmas.
Also on Tuesday night’s agenda was an audit of the Plaza Maintenance Assessment District (PMAD).
During a recently audit of the District, spanning 14 years, city staff discovered that some businesses had been overcharged, while others had been undercharged. The staff recommendation was to reimburse those who had overpaid and waive the fees for those who underpaid.
“It was the city who miscalculated the square footage, not the business owners,” explained Blatz, of the fee charged to downtown businesses to keep the tourist hub well maintained. “They paid what we told them to pay.”
During the audit, certain businesses in the Arcade Plaza said they should be reimbursed for the negative impacts they claim is caused by the Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market on Sundays.
Council members unanimously approved the staff recommendations regarding correcting the PMAD miscues. They also directed staff to bring back a recommendation for charging the Farmers’ Market an impact fee at an upcoming Council meeting.
Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market manager Cynthia Korman said recently she had no idea the fee was being discussed again.
“I have told them (Council members) in the past that this is not done in other areas, and it is not good for farmers,” Korman said. “It is jeopardizing the market. It is a lot of burden to place on the famers, who already don’t take as much increase (in prices) as they should.”
Visit www.ci.ojai.ca.us to view previous Council meetings and for information on upcoming meetings.