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Code enforcement process spelled out for council
• Sgt. Coley in charge of two code enforcement officers
At times, like this in 2015, the city has to get involved in eradicating blight and can facilitate in the clean-up of properties where health and safety concerns are allowed by residents or landlords.

Code enforcement is city terminology for getting residents and business owners to clean up their act and live as good neighbors. At times that can be both a frustrating process for the city and those who are being asked to make changes.

In Ceres the task of code enforcement is under the Ceres Police Department. So Sgt. Jason Coley was in charge of a presentation made to the Ceres City Council at last week’s week to brush them up on the way things work.

Coley supervises the unit, which consists of two code enforcement officers in Roger Alvarez and Jeff Varni, and a part-time secretary. Coley thanked the council for recently adding Varni’s position to keep up with the demand which can produce 15 new cases per week.

Officers enforce the Ceres Municipal Code, consisting of educating citizens about ways they violate the code and answering complaints. He said that morning he spoke to a resident who had a vehicle parked on the street with registration that expired at least six months ago.

Most of the complaints lodged to the code enforcement team are illegal dumping, trash, blight, homeless camps, vacant lots, abandoned vehicles and substandard buildings.

Complaints come from residents as well as from city departments. They are ranked in order of priority, with unsafe housing issues that affect life or health rating as much urgent which could result in a Summary Abatement. A lower priority would be complaints about abandoned vehicles on the street or in a driveway.

“Every case is important to us but we do have to prioritize and sometimes we don’t get around to the ones we want to but eventually we do,” said Coley, who was handling 30 open cases on that time. The prior week his unit had 58 inspections to make.

Inspections are made to check out reported violations and everything is documented. If there is a problem, the owner is contacted and asked to remedy it. If the responsible party is not cooperating or tackling the problem within the city’s time frame, Coley said his unit starts “squeezing for them to get something.” Ten days later a re-inspection is done. If the problem has not been corrected the city gives another 10 days before going to the step of issuing fines.

“We are very big on working with our citizens and not jumping to conclusions and writing a ticket right away,” said Coley. “That isn’t to say we don’t write tickets but we try to work with our citizens to give them more than enough opportunity to correct those violations. If that doesn’t happen and they still don’t correct it, we write them a citation and send them a Notice of Abatement.”

The notice gives order to correct before the city can prosecute.

The whole process can take five days to years. The most extreme example is the case of the fire-damaged house on Walnut Avenue that sat vacant for years. On Oct. 11, 2011 the city was notified about the blight. The eyesore was finally removed this year and the new owners are building a house on the site.

Coley explained how the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution plays into the process. It protects residents from unreasonable search and seizure unless a warrant is involved. Coley gave the example of the city receiving complaints about feces or urine inside a home. He said without consent or a warrant, the city cannot inspect properties.

City officials also cannot peek over fences, stand on ladders or cars or view properties from a neighbor’s second-story window to glimpse suspected code violations. An inspection warrant based on documentation is required, he explained, from the court through the city attorney.

Vice Mayor Linda Ryno commented that the time allowance could give some the idea that the city is not acting on a specific complaint.

Sgt. Coley explained some of the administrative citation fines associated with failing to correct violations. The first citations come with a $100 fine, the second with a $250 fine and third and subsequent violations at $500.

“Sometimes we do reach that third citation, sometimes we reach that fourth and fifth unfortunately,” said Coley. “It depends on who we’re working with.”

The city has a separate fine structure for those who leave their garbage cans in public view outside the allowed time period around garbage pickup. The first citation is $20 and second is $50.

Coley touched on illegal dumping, saying “we do our best to find out who the responsible was … but it’s very difficult to find that person.” 

Problem areas in Ceres are equipped with surveillance cameras to catch violators. Coley’s team also solicits the help of neighbors who may have seen an illegal dump occur and have car description and license plate number.

While each single-family residence is allowed two free bulky waste pick-ups per year, apartment dwellers do not have that service.

Sgt. Coley gave an overview of the problem of abandoned vehicles in view of the public on private property. He said it’s unlawful for the city to tow vehicles without probable cause. Coley gave the example of being lawful to tow away a car that on the street with flat tires, cob webs and tags that expired six months ago. Private property storage of non-operable vehicles falls under the Fourth Amendment, he said. That means the city has to send a notice of violation and notice to abate in 10 days. If it’s not removed the city starts by asking the owner if they need help in moving it. At times some want the city to take away and junk the car. In other cases – such as in the case of classic cars being restored – the city tries to work with the citizens. If a car is operable, has air in the tires, is kept washed or covered, the city “likes to work with the spirit of the law and say that’s actually okay,” said Sgt. Coley.

The city has a Vehicle Abatement Unit which is funded through StanCOG. The city has one part-time vehicle abatement officer position but it’s been vacant recently and Coley hopes to fill it soon.

As far as abandoned shopping carts goes, Sgt. Coley said the Municipal Code requires all carts to be labeled with the name of the store. He said stores are also supposed to notify customers that it’s illegal to take the cart off the premises of the store or its parking lot. Stores also must have a cart retrieval system in place.

Regarding homeless sleeping on public property, the city’s hands have been tied by a court decision and legislation passed in Sacramento. The Boise decision handed down by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Boise, Idaho city ordinance banning sleeping outdoors as unconstitutional if the affected people have no other options available.

“This does not give the homeless people to break other laws, such as trespassing,” said Coley. “But the idea of sleeping under a tree in Smyrna Park at night is not illegal.”

The city does not clean up private properties of homeless camps but works with the owner to abate. He cited one complaint about squatters on Sixth Street south of Parks Street. The owner in Oakdale was contacted on Sept. 13, 2016 and was cited for failing to act and was finally abated on Jan. 29, 2018. The case has been reopened because of the lot collecting trash.

Code enforcement is partnering with Ceres Fire Department to abate high grass and weeds and trash in vacant lots. He said the city does not clean up homeless camps on private property. The city facilitates the clean-up of illegal dumps on streets but does not do the work itself. The city also:

• Does not enter private property;

• Does not investigate civil matters;

• Does not process items at illegal dumps for DNA or finger prints;

• Does not enforce the Ceres Municipal Code without due process.

Coley noted that residents can help report code violations and generate a case through a smartphone app called GORequest which can be downloaded. Those who don’t use smartphone apps can go to the city’s website, and click on “Ask Ceres” and select from any myriad of problems such as “illegal dump” or “trash problem” or “miscellaneous.”