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Archive for Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Higher standard

Charges that the city’s landlord-tenant mediator owns rental property that violates the city’s housing code is an embarrassing situation for the city.

August 15, 2006

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Interim City Manager David Corliss was on the right track last week when he said, "We do expect city employees to be held to the same level of accountability as any citizen."

Actually, when that accountability involves the city's own laws, the public generally expects an even higher level of compliance from their paid city staff.

That's why the case of a city employee who is charged with violating the city's housing code raises a number of troubling and embarrassing questions.

Paul Winn, a human resources specialist with the city's Human Relations Department, is charged with 10 violations of the city's housing code at apartments he owns at 1200 N.Y. and 1202 N.Y. Although the apartments still can be occupied, inspectors responding to complaints from the tenants found violations that seem to pose significant dangers: a poorly constructed deck and stairway, weak flooring and an extension cord substituting for standard wiring. Rotted siding and window sills also were noted.

The case was turned over to Municipal Court because inspectors had seen no improvement in the properties even though several letters had been sent to Winn beginning in late February. A further lack of concern for the situation also can be construed from Winn's failure to appear for a scheduled court appearance in the case last week.

The city's prosecutor said it is relatively uncommon for housing code violations to reach Municipal Court because landlords were given ample notification and opportunity to correct the situation. He estimated that only about two housing code violations cases make it to his office each month. That one of those cases involves a person in a city administrative job is embarrassing.

The job Winn is in also raises some questions about potential conflict of interest. Although Winn doesn't deal with housing code violations, he does work with tenants who believe they have been discriminated against by landlords. Does having a landlord - and especially someone who may not be a particularly good landlord - in this position represent a conflict of interest? Could there be at least the appearance that Winn might favor landlords over tenants in a discrimination complaint? It's unfortunate that this case might raise those questions, but the city needs to consider how they might respond to such issues.

City officials deserve credit for holding Winn accountable for the problems at his rental property, but they also need to be aware that, when it comes to city laws, many taxpayers expect city employees to adhere to an even higher standard of compliance than the average Lawrence resident.

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