Broken windows, abandoned buildings, improper business signs: Whatever the code violation, Code Enforcement inspectors will not be the ones responding to the problem.
Instead, they will be the members of the Neighborhood Preservation Unit, and soon they will start enforcing codes more proactively in Ventura.
The Ventura City Council voted unanimously Monday night to support the change in how code enforcement operates. Rather than being complaint-driven, the Neighborhood Preservation Unit will work with departments throughout the city to find and remedy violations.
Prompted by resident complaints, the council had requested a status report on code enforcement.
Monday's report had a list of just under 200 properties with civil penalties that had been forwarded to the county tax collector. None had moved to foreclosure — as some residents had argued — from liens put on properties by the city.
"We've asked the county: If you're going to foreclose because of a city lien, let us know," said Andrew Stuffler, chief building official.
Stuffler told the council that improving relations between code enforcement and the public would be a priority. That goal includes a more casual look for inspectors.
"We're trying to keep anxiety as low as possible because we know the process is stressful already," Stuffler said.
Councilwoman Christy Weir's motion, approved 7-0, included:
» Making code compliance a citywide priority.
» Issuing citations when warranted after first trying to work with property owners.
» Improving awareness about proper signs, followed by proactive enforcement if necessary.
» Supporting efforts to increase downtown noise compliance.
» Changing the name from "Code Enforcement" to "Neighborhood Preservation."
Weir requested the council consider adding resources to the department in upcoming budget discussions.
The city has tried the more aggressive approach before. In 2009, inspectors walked streets looking for violations. Most of the problems they found related to unpermitted granny flats and other second units.
That lasted only a few weeks, and the city returned to its former system, but it was long enough to anger some residents and catch the attention of the Ventura County grand jury last year.
The jury released a report in June accusing the city of behaving aggressively when enforcing building and zoning codes.
Interim City Manager Johnny Johnston responded to each of the panel's eight recommendations in an October letter he wrote to Ventura County Superior Court Presiding Judge Vincent O'Neill.
The city was working to remove language deemed threatening or biased and continues to help property owners get through the process, he wrote. The city would also try to define "substandard" better and "more clearly describe the urgency and severity of conditions being cited on a property."
Resident Tom Stanley urged the council to make clear that substandard "refer only to life safety issues," he said.
As part of changes to inspectors' uniforms, inspectors would wear lighter-colored polos, conceal their badges and place their tools in something like a belt pack. That uniform would replace black boots, black polos, badges worn at the waist and a utility belt.
The three current city inspectors disagreed with the changes.
"My safety is my priority," said Code Enforcement Officer Sonia Zosimo, including easy access to tools.
"We want to be easily recognizable," said fellow officer Brad Clark, adding that their jobs occasionally put them in contact with hostile residents.
Resident Camille Harris, one of the city's biggest critics on code enforcement, called the uniforms a diversion from the real problem.
"What we really need to address are the harsh collection methods that put people's homes at risk," Harris said.
Councilman Neal Andrews also asked the staff to consider expanding the amnesty program geared at bringing illegally converted granny flats into code compliance. Andrews wants the program to include single-family residences, businesses and industrial structures.
The staff plans to look at the costs and time involved with launching a broader program.
The council approved Andrews' motion 5-0, with Weir and Mayor Mike Tracy abstaining because of conflicts of interest.