Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

This tale of woe was recently recounted to me by a frustrated resident that lives along the Berkeley Oakland border. In trying to address blight issues in his neighborhood related to dilapidated houses, a concerned citizen checked the City of Berkeley web page to find out the process for reporting blight and what the City does to investigate and resolve blight issues. Unfortunately, the City web page was a bit confusing. There was no apparent link for blight. There were links for reporting communicable diseases, for West Nile Virus, tobacco prevention, and tuberculosis control, among others. But no blight.

Digging a little deeper, our concerned citizen clicked on the A-Z index and up popped a myriad of links. Checking under B he found birth and death certificates, birth control, and block party permits, but no blight. Apparently, Berkeley has a blight ordinance, but no blight. Digging yet a littler deeper, our concerned citizen found the online request for service form. While the online request form is normally used to report roof rats, Norway rats, mice, trash/debris/garbage, overgrowth, sewage spills, abandoned vehicles, noise violations, and smoking violations, it unfortunately was not available and so directed our concerned citizen to call the Environmental Health Division. By the way who can tell the difference between a roof rat and a Norway rat?

Upon reaching a staff person in the Environmental Health Division, our concerned citizen was promptly told that he really needed Housing Code Enforcement. Upon explaining the issues to Housing Code Enforcement, he was promptly told he needed Code Enforcement for blight issues and was transferred yet again to the Supervising Code Enforcement Officer. From there, things went downhill fast, with the Supervising Code Enforcement Officer eventually telling our concerned citizen that the he was irritating. Can you believe that? A concerned citizen wants to report blight in his community only to be told by a manager in Berkeley City Government that he is irritating. Needless to say, our concerned citizen, himself a veteran of local and state government bureaucracies elevated the matter to the Deputy City Manager and the City Manager to resolve the personnel matter, but more importantly to address the blight issues. Apparently, the Deputy City Manager has assigned another City staff person to work with our concerned citizen to investigate and hopefully resolve the blight issues.

Nevertheless, this begs the question: why does the City of Berkeley make it so difficult to report and resolve blight issues? While some elements of its web page make it seem as if the City really cares about blight and wants to partner with the police and residents to address this critical issue, the practical reality is that there are really very few staffers willing to take ownership of blight issues, pursue all legal avenues, and push hard to get results. We know that Code Enforcement Officers have a tough job. Not unlike police, they see the worst of the worst day in and day out. But their workload is complaint driven and the customer is the public. We can only hope that those who are burned out, disgruntled or otherwise unhappy working on blight issues move on.

Surprisingly, Oakland has almost a one stop shop through the Oakland Public Works call center where you can report any number of blight issues through a central call number or report in on the web. It appears to me that Oakland is serious about blight, Berkeley not so much...


Laura said...

Environmental Health maintains their database based on work order not address. Code enforcement uses address. When the problem properties team is deployed is it highly unlikely that the history of complaints, status of action, work orders etc are compiled in an organized manner. The system is arbitrary and discretionary resulting in business owners and residents feeling discriminated against.

Fred Dodsworth said...

"After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the
most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.

The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd." -- Alexis de Tocqueville [Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clerel, le Comte de Tocqueville](1805-1859) French historian

Clean up your own house before you look to the homes of others!

The current iteration of Berkeley's focus on blight is as poorly conceived and badly executed as the last time the city foisted this debacle on its residents!

What's with the Mayor Bates/Mayor Hancock household that they are so eager to punish Berkeley citizens for failing to live within the strict confines of Norman Rockwell's white picket fence ideal of Midwestern, Middle Class,
Middle America?

I look around the city of Berkeley's various commercial corridors and I see filthy, broken sidewalks, empty storefronts, trash, broken windows, graffiti, human excrement and worse.

Each empty space represents increased municipal expenses and reduced municipal income. Each empty space represents three lost jobs per 1,000 square feet. Each empty doorway becomes a bedroom/bathroom/boudoir for
another unemployed, drug and/or alcohol addicted down-and-outer!

Radstons, Codys, Amsterdam Art, Earthly Goods 2, 1505 Shattuck, each of these have been empty for more than a year and each of these are an on-going and neglected cancer in our community.

There are literally hundreds more of these empty properties blighting our city, in the retail and in the industrial districts and yet you've done NOTHING effective to turn this situation around while plaguing modest homeowners over inconsequential petty regulations regarding the planting of fruit trees and median strips!

Good God, has the city no sense? Is there not more fruitful soil for Jim Hynes to farm to than making a nuisance of himself and city staff by harassing residents?

We are clearly entering the most devastating economic and ecological crisis of our lifetimes and you are misfocusing city staff energies on irrelevant, poorly and inconsistently enforced, minor violations. Talk about Nero
fiddling while Rome burned. The City of Berkeley puts Nero to shame, at least he created
music while their efforts do nothing but promulgate rancor.