Archive for Sunday, March 25, 2001

City defends codes enforcement

March 25, 2001


Lawrence officials are hearing calls for stronger enforcement of the city's noise and housing laws, but they say the complaints miss the mark.

Complaints about lax enforcement of local ordinances mushroomed over the winter as city commissioners considered limits on the number of unrelated people living together in single-family homes.

The enforcement issue has persisted through this spring's city commission election campaign. One candidate says the city needs to do a better job enforcing ordinances and tracking complaints.

"Judging by the number of complaints we hear from the public, I'd have to say" enforcement isn't up to par, said David Dunfield, a local architect seeking re-election to the city commission. "I don't think it's for lack of trying, but they do need support in terms of manpower and systematic improvement."

But City Manager Mike Wildgen said he thinks the city is doing the job, particularly with complaints about run-down houses.

"From my perspective, I think we enforce the complaints," he said. "That doesn't mean we do concentrated code enforcement, looking at every block, but the complaints we respond to. We've had a very active case load for years on inspection."

Building inspectors had a log of 274 active cases involving zoning, environmental and structural blight and other problems at the start of the year. That number rose to 429 by the end of February.

One new inspector was added in January.

There could be more cases, Wildgen said, but many residents would rather not file a formal complaint against their neighbors. The city primarily enforces codes on a complaint basis.

When complaints are filed, he said, the city usually tries to work with property owners to comply with the codes rather than prosecute them right away.

"In most cases, they might need a little extra time," said Gene Shaughnessy, the city's chief building inspector. "If they're showing progress, we'll probably give them a little extra time to comply."

Noise ordinance

City officials also defend the record on noise complaints.

"I think other than the police department, the city does a great job of enforcement," said landlord Robert Ebey.

The problem arises on weekends, when loud parties pop up around the city and neighbors call the police to complain.

"They don't show up," Ebey said of the police. "Or if they do show up they don't do anything. They can write a citation, but a citation doesn't mean anything."

Lawrence Police Det. John Lewis acknowledges that many calls to parties don't result in prosecution. Officers strive to solve the problem without getting heavy-handed, he said.

"People would not like it if we enforced every ordinance as strictly as we could," he said. "Because then you'd be giving a lot of people a lot of tickets."

Lewis said officers generally don't write tickets unless a witness makes a formal complaint. Usually, they try to persuade partygoers to simply quiet down.

"Our main goal is to strive for compliance," he said. "If we go there, talk to them and it calms down, then we've done our job."

That means relatively few prosecutions. According to police statistics, they received 1,259 "noise disturbance" calls from across the city between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31, 2000, approximately fall semester at Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations universities. Between Jan. 1, 2000, and March 16, 2001, the city prosecuted 58 "disturbing the peace" cases.

"I don't get a lot of feedback saying these laws need to be enforced more that would be my way of gauging that," said Tom Porter, the city's municipal court prosecutor. "Most people are happy the police came out and stopped the noise."

Tracking reports

As a starting point, some candidates say, the city needs to do a better job of tracking all the complaints it receives.

"One of the things I'd like to see us do is have a single database that tracks complaints, whether they're coming from police officers or building inspectors, so we can track more accurately," Dunfield said.

As part of that, he suggests, police should have to fill out some kind of report for every nuisance call they go on, even if it doesn't result in a ticket or other kind of criminal complaint.

City departments say they're already tracking complaints, but the reporting proposal raises objections from police.

"Logistically, that would be pretty close to a nightmare," Lewis said. "We have stated numerous times we don't have as many officers as we should, anyhow. The ones that are out there are working as much as they can."

Complaints about slow police response times to low-priority calls, he said, would only get worse.

"We already have a backlog of calls," he said. "If we have more paperwork, that's even less calls we can go on."

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