Also known as “policing for profit.”
What do the following have in common?
- Backyard BBQ’s where the applied steak sauce yields – in the opinion of the smoke-detectors, aka Lakewood Code Enforcement Officers (CEOs) and Community Service Officers (CSOs) contracted with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA) – too much pollution?
- The proposed Rental Inspection Program (RIP-off) in Lakewood whereby landlords would pay an annual inspection fee (and more) to ensure the already existing Landlord Tennant Act that (one would think) serves as a quite sufficient means of arbitration is actually kept thus adding not only an extra layer of governmental interference but also providing a significant source of additional revenue (which may be the real motive)?
- “City inspectors even judging interior design decisions, (citing residents) for mismatched curtains”?
When “no infraction (is) too small to escape the scrutiny of fine-happy officials” you get not only what’s happening in Pagedale, a suburb of St. Louis, (3 above) but what is apparently planned for Lakewood folks as well.
Fortunately, for now, the BBQ sauce thing no longer pertains. Though it most certainly once did. According to a Public Disclosure Request, the following exchange occurred between one of Lakewood’s CSOs, a Lakewood CEO and PSCAA Supervising Inspector Kimberly Cole:
Chiming in was a CSO: “My neighbor barbecues regularly and must use a huge amount of sauce or marinade. While he’s cooking, and when he burns the grill clean, he smokes-out the neighborhood.”
Cole: “Good question!! The answer is ‘yes.’”
The Lakewood Police Department (LPD) – it’s CSOs together with CEOs – and for that matter University Place, has not subcontracted – at last check – with the PSCAA for at least the last year, perhaps more, for reasons unknown, despite – or maybe because of – the fact that they were paid at an hourly rate ranging from $37.38 per regular hour to $54.25 per overtime hour (CEOs), and $31.76 – $45.95 for CS0s, nearly $25,000 annually for burn ban patrols (five on patrol, five burn bans in one season, thus $1,000 for each on patrol each called burn ban).
But there was a time during Burn Bans when – surreptitiously sneaking about – there would be armed (with specialized night surveillance cameras) LPD employees to document (provided in their hurry to get away undetected they got the address right) the smoke from your chimney or BBQ and perhaps you were then one of many who received during that time a $1,000 citation with a half-off special (‘pay $500 now and don’t ever do that again’) notice of infraction.
While the Burn Ban patrols may have – temporarily – gone up in smoke, the RIP-OFF (Office of Financial Foolishness) proposal is very much on the Lakewood City Council’s front burner. The potential result being that “the particularly brazen brand of enforcement” that has made Pagedale a page from hell (3 above) – where literally what color you paint your house, how tall is your grass, a basketball hoop in your driveway all merit not only the city’s wrath – and consequent fines – but has likewise so incensed the populace of Pagedale that “they have banded together to sue the city in federal court in a civil rights case that’s getting national attention” – may not be far from reality here.
To read Lakewood’s take on the issue (pages 3-45), initially couched in the feel-good, apple-pie and baseball all-American language – to provide “safe and decent living conditions for everyone who lives in rental housing in the City” (who isn’t for that?) – yet what follows leaves the ‘monkey-see, monkey-do’ impression that this is less a reflection upon need for such a program but rather an untoward emphasis upon – indeed the central factor driving this proposal – what other cities have done and gotten away with legally.
Cited early on in the City Council Study Session packet for this past December 14, 2015, was the example of Bellingham where all rental property owners were required to register their rentals – not their portfolio but each and every single rental – every year for which there would be a fee for each and every single rental, and every three years each and every single rental would be inspected to ensure it met the standards the city set (matching curtains perhaps as Pagedale City design experts currently enforce and assess penalties).
As Bellingham has about 15,000 rentals, and each one to be registered requires an annual fee of $10 ($8 if more than 20 rentals in the complex; as high as $25/rental elsewhere), $150,000 annually ain’t bad and that doesn’t include what fee is charge for the every-three-year required inspection of every single one.
Not to be outdone, Mountlake Terrace added fees not only for inspections but for certificates of compliance and late charges. The city’s inspection covers sanitation, heating, ventilation, electrical, emergency escape, occupancy, vermin, smoke detectors, and, although not listed, one can assume, any partridges in the pear trees, and perhaps matching curtains.
Interestingly in Lakewood, the department pushing RIP-OFF appears to be not so much Community Development where one would think responsibility for the issue would primarily rest, but rather Lakewood’s legal department. Not surprisingly, fees – how to pay for such a program here – not need, is addressed first off, including, but not limited to Municipal Court (civil fine and penalty) enforcement of $150 per day for the first 10 days and $500 per day after that, and double the renewal license fees for being late.
Understandably the reaction from property managers, landlords, housing associations, realtors, etc. was a few mere decibels short of a sonic boom:
- “Way too much regulation/expense compared to the problem”
- “Another layer of government/taxes”
- “Penalizing the majority of the good landlords/owners for the conditions maintained by the minority of the bad landlords/owners”
- “Government intrusion into private business”
The order by which this matter was presented to the Council is indicative of a proverbial tail-wagging-the-dog, cart-before-the-horse, wrong-headed approach to a supposed need: Legality issues; other city programs; potential Lakewood programs; public outreach reactions; and finally, ostensibly, the need for such a program.
Even the discussion of need, the tail end of the presentation, fails to actually address the need in a qualitative and quantitative manner that would define the scope of the rental housing problem.
There is nothing in the presentation which addresses the scope of non-compliant rentals any more than it does of any non-compliant non-rental properties. It’s one thing to show some photos of the “good, bad and ugly” but what are the actual numbers? If the “bad and ugly” represent a small number of rental properties (similar numbers are suspected for non-rental properties) then why is there a need for a draconian program which ensnares all rental properties?
Two suggested answers: (1) that’s how government works: why use a fly swatter when you can use a sledge hammer and get the same result? (2) “policing for profit.”
Turn all those steps in the presentation to the council around, put them totally in reverse order, and then there can be had a valued discussion on, of all things, values – said discussions based on values one of the truest indicators of a successful organization.
But that wasn’t the case which of course begs the several questions:
Does Community Development not have the data to support the need for RIP-OFF?
Does the City Council have the wherewithal as elected representatives, after all, to ask Community Development – not the legal department – to please establish the need, given the existing Landlord Tennant Act addresses already the very concerns RIP-OFF would – sans of course the policing from which Lakewood would profit – or is the Council simply along for the ride?
Why, in the two outreach meetings hosted for landlords by Lakewood’s legal department, was there – in the name of transparency – no mention of Seattle’s evident failure to install a similar program given the required hiring of city inspectors violated privacy rights?
Why, in those same two meetings, was there no mention that Seattle ultimately was able to circumvent the illegality noted above by instead requiring landlords to employ (thus being out-of-pocket) – from an approved list – private inspectors to do the certification?
Is RIP-OFF in reality in part a smoke screen by which to rehire code enforcers who could then, among other “policing-for-profit” schemes, re-contract with the PSCAA and resurrect the otherwise abandoned night-work extracurricular activity they once pursued – burning people financially for burning steaks on their BBQ’s?