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Code enforcement taking too big a bite

We wholeheartedly applaud the messages given by three Denton City Council members to code enforcement about the overzealous inspections generating much angst among residents and business owners plagued with repeated notices.

It was during a Sept. 17 workshop where council members revisited the code enforcement department’s operations that Mayor Mark Burroughs and council members James King and Dalton Gregory specifically addressed concerns with the current modus operandi.

King pointed out that the property maintenance code, which underwent sweeping reform in 2009 and 2010, had plenty of teeth in it.

“I think plenty of people realized there are teeth, and they’re getting hauled to court,” he said in the workshop. “I think we’re kind of overkilling it.”

Records show that 16,146 code enforcement investigations were conducted in 2012 with 8,754 addresses investigated. Of those, 859 had four or more violations. Overall, the number of violations investigated average about 3.68 per address.

Though the City Council aired concerns in January, the department continued its work, issuing — from January through August (an eight-month period) — 14,371 notices of violation on more than 11,000 cases worked.

According to a Denton Record-Chronicle analysis of 2012 data, officers investigated more than 16,000 cases, five times what they worked five years ago, when employees looked into a problem only after someone called City Hall to complain.

Many city notices involved a health and safety issue that did trigger a complaint from someone.

But the analysis also showed that thousands of notices didn’t fall into that category — for example, letters telling residents that they put out the trash bin at the wrong time or let the lawn get too high — and may never have spurred a call to City Hall.

The lion’s share of cases — about 5,700 — investigated a single violation at a single address. A dozen officers worked proactively in new and old neighborhoods alike. As a result, scores more Denton residents opened their mail at some point last year to find a notice of violation from code enforcement.

Several council members have said a dozen officers appeared to be a lot considering the city’s size, but the city needs both the rules and the officers to be able to respond to an uncooperative property owner, council member Jim Engelbrecht said.

“We want to be a nice guy, but if you really have a mess, and you want to play hardball, then we can play hardball, too,” Engelbrecht said.

Frankly, Mr. Engelbrecht, we believe that Mr. King nailed it — a dozen officers and the number of violations are both, well, overkill.

Some residents have begun to question whether proactive enforcement of the property maintenance code, particularly for aesthetic matters, is a good use of the city’s resources.

We believe that’s a fair question, and we’re grateful that city officials are finally searching for answers.

The department’s approach when it comes to health and safety issues is correct, Burroughs said, but he has repeatedly called for a different approach when employees are evaluating an aesthetic issue.

“We have been emphasizing the punitive in the nature of the way of our notices of violation, the encouragement of uses of notice of violation, even the wording of the thing,” Burroughs said. “We’re just trying to make our city look better. You don’t punish the community.”

We believe that a majority of Denton residents and property owners support efforts to clean up their city, and when it comes to health and safety, we should all be on the same wavelength. Yet, as the mayor pointed out, we need a different approach to code enforcement, and we urge the council to continue its evaluation of the situation.

We need to spend our time and tax money investigating serious infractions, not making criminals out of good citizens who set out their trash bins too soon.