After years of voluntary compliance, Gresham code enforcement officers prepare for a stricter, more aggressive approach to code violators
It's about 8 a.m. on a Thursday morning and Barbara Gomez, a Gresham code enforcement officer, is navigating the windy roads of Walter's Hill in response to a reported code violation.
Rounding the bend, she sees it - a fifth-wheel type flatbed trailer parked along the side of a residential street. She slaps a bright green notice on the tongue of the rig, giving the owner five working days to get rid of it. A week later, the trailer is gone.
But starting next month, Gomez might approach such violations differently.
Gresham has doubled its number of code enforcement officers from two to four and is beginning a new heavy-handed method of dealing with everything from abandoned vehicles to overgrown grass.
If no code changes are needed to make the new approach possible, Gresham's more aggressive model could take effect in mid-September or early October.
The new enforcement-based approach is more direct and efficient than today's compliance-based model - or the 'please, pretty please, pretty pretty please,' approach that can take months to get results - said Eric Schmidt, Gresham's deputy director of community and economic development.
An aggressive approach
Here's how the new system works.
When code enforcement officers find a violation, they will provide a notice of the violation and order that it be fixed within 10 days.
But the notice also doubles as warning that within 30 days, the city can place a lien against the property to cover the $200-a-month in administrative enforcement fees and other costs associated with solving the problem - whether it's removing vegetation or piles of trashy junk.
Gresham has the legal authority to clean such messes on its own, but violations that affect health and public safety will be given top priority, said Gresham's City Attorney Susan Bischoff.
Once a citizen receives a notice of violation, he or she has 10 days to appeal it.
How the city proceeds will depend on how the property owner, or in some cases property manager or tenant, responds to the notice of violation.
If the person responsible for addressing the violation solves the problem, or tries to, the city could drop the abatement process.
But if the violator is a repeat offender or unresponsive, the city could continue with the abatement process and even cite the responsible party to appear in court.
A finding against the person in court can result in fines, some of which are as steep as $500 a day. 'That can be some fairly hefty motivation for a property owner to take care of a problem,' Bischoff said.
Very few Gresham cases now end up in court. In Gomez's six years as a Gresham code enforcement officer, only four of her cases have appeared before a judge. Gomez won each of them, she proudly pointed out.
The abatement hammer has always been available to the city. Gresham just rarely used it due to its kinder, gentler, compliance-focused approach, in which code enforcement officers provide many notices and chances to fix violations.
Gomez usually pays violators two or three visits, checking in until the problem is resolved.
'But we have some diehards,' she said, climbing back into her city pickup truck.
Some residents fix the problem, only to have the violation's ugly head pop up in another year. Others hope the city forgets about it. Still others want to see how far they can push code enforcement officers before they'll issue an ultimatum.
Right now, Gomez has at least three such cases that started off well in May. Since then, progress has stalled and three months later, she's still battling for code compliance.
The new approach should free code enforcement officers to work with residents who are serious about voluntarily cleaning their properties, Schmidt said.
'They won't have to go back 15 times to those property owners who are not really interested in making those changes,' he said.
Nevertheless, Gomez has mixed feelings about the city's new approach.
She's afraid it might put a 'bad taste' in the public's mouth, 'and you don't want that, you want them to work with us,' Gomez said.
Gomez - with her gray hair and grandmotherly demeanor - is good at getting people to work with her.
Bischoff thinks the new method will give residents even greater incentive, the financial sort, to cooperate with code enforcement officers.
Make no mistake, their discretion on how to handle cases won't change, Bischoff said. The real change is instead of code enforcement officers making three visits to issue various warnings, they'll issue all the warnings during the first visit.
Gomez said that as long as residents are sincere and act in good faith, she and other code enforcement officers will continue working with them to achieve code compliance.
'But some people like to string us along,' Gomez said, which is why she ultimately understands why the city is cracking down. 'Gresham is really growing and expanding. We need to get control of what we've got now, so we don't bring these old issues into the new expansion areas.'
That's one reason Mayor Charles Becker supports the change.
As Gresham has grown, so has its demand for additional code enforcement officers.
'We didn't have enough people on the streets,' Becker said during a July 25 meeting about the new code enforcement approach. 'We were being reactive instead of proactive. … We need to move out into the community and identify those types of activities that are illegal.'
Councilor Shirley Craddick is delighted by the change. 'Code enforcement is a key process and is key to making the city more livable,' she said, adding that she hopes word of the more vigilant approach spreads, resulting in few code violations.
Echoing those sentiments, Councilor David Widmark said he thinks the city should use everything at its disposal - fines, liens, and the courts - to clean up the city.
'I think we need to use em' and hit em' hard,' Widmark said. 'When they realize that we do mean business, I think we will see a reduction.