All it takes is a photo and city will warn neighbors of fines
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Urban hens, such as these kept outside a Southeast Portland home, are legal in Portland, but city officials say they get a number of complaints each year about illegal roosters crowing at odd hours of the day and night.

Mike Liefeld, enforcement manager for the Portland Bureau of Development Services, says his bureau gets nearly 6,000 complaints every year about everything from graffiti to building code violations. Short of staff, the bureau investigates about three out of four.

That means a lot of nuisance complaints never get investigated, and a lot of annoyed neighbors figure they just have to deal with it. To address that problem, two years ago the bureau started a pilot project that allows residents to turn in neighbors and start the violation process by themselves. But only one kind of violation qualifies to be part of this do-it-yourself program: overgrown yards.

Anyone who wants to complain about a neighbor whose yard grass and weeds exceed the city's 10-inch-high limit need only take a photograph of the offending yard and send it in to the bureau with the proper complaint information. The bureau, without dispatching an inspector, will send a violation letter and start fines if the yard isn't cleaned.

Two summers ago, complaints about overgrown grass and weeds with accompanying photos resulted in 130 violation letters, with 28 of those resulting in monthly fines - $233 for each of the first two months and $466 per month after that.

The program appears to be catching on. This year, neighbors turned in 199 residents and 49 of those violators didn't mow or fire up the weed trimmer and ended up being fined.

Liefeld says the program is an efficient way to deal with a code violation his bureau otherwise has to ignore. The only problems, he says, are that a number of people have sent complaints with incomplete information or inadequate photos, and that others liked the DYI process so much they sent in complaints for violations other than tall grass and weeds.

Watching city crews

Nationwide, a number of budget-strapped cities are experimenting with streamlining the process of code violation complaints. In New Haven, Conn., a program called SeeClickFix lets residents direct city work crews themselves merely by sending in a photo and information from their smartphones or computers.

SeeClickFix is proprietary software that founder Ben Berkowitz says is a response to the recognition that cities just don't have the staff anymore to follow up on all complaints. In New Haven, the program started as it did in Portland and many cities, with citizens able to use the app to send in complaints about potholes and inoperable stop lights.

In New Haven, the system worked so well that the city decided to eliminate the middlemen - city inspectors - and have complaints go directly into the work order system for city crews.

The system does not eliminate inspectors for neighbor-against-neighbor complaints such as overgrown yards. But Berkowitz says his company's software is able to filter out most inappropriate and grudge complaints with complicated algorithms that include screening the complainer's past reporting behavior.

Robert Smuts, New Haven's chief administrative officer, says the six-month-old program is working well when it comes to potholes, parking meters and graffiti. In fact, he says the city has been swamped with pothole complaints, and he likes the idea of citizens taking more responsibility and communicating more with their city government.

SeeClickFix even encourages Web viewers to monitor their city's response to complaints by watching how long it takes city crews to fix reported problems.

Smuts says New Haven has learned it can't allow complaints to completely drive the city response system because their boundaries includes Yale University as well as a number of impoverished neighborhoods where residents aren't as techno-savvy. An analysis in April showed that many more complaints came in from neighborhoods with wealthier and better-educated residents.

'We make sure we're not purely basing it on squeaky wheels getting the grease,' Smuts says.

SeeClickFix lets citizens register complaints anonymously, but Berkowitz says the smartphone or Web reporting process probably discourages people from misusing the complaint system.

'Even if you're anonymous, there's a feeling of accountability that sits on your shoulders,' he says.

Confidentiality of complainants has been a controversial issue in Portland. In fact, tall grass and weeds are the only type of city code violation in which complainants cannot stay confidential. That's because, under the new pilot program, tall grass and weed complaints are never investigated by a bureau inspector.

If somebody wants to know who turned them in for an overgrown yard, and is willing to make a public records request to the bureau, says Liefeld, they can get the name.

In two years, how many have asked who dropped the dime on them?

'Not a single person has asked,' Liefeld says.


Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • The tall grass and weeds at this Southeast Portland home inspired a complaint to a city program that allows neighbors to start the violation process without waiting for a city inspector.

• City office weeds out weird complaints

Portland residents complain about just about everything, and they complain to just about every city bureau. But dozens each day come in to the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, which often forwards the complaint to the appropriate bureau.

The office gets some doozies, says Information and Referral Manager John Dutt. A few of their favorites, according to Dutt:

• A resident complained because 'he was concerned about his scantily clad neighbor' and all the different men he saw coming and going from her home.

• A neighbor complained about children next door playing basketball in their own driveway. The call came in at 2 p.m.

• A resident called the office upset about 'a family with several young boys encouraging them to use the backyard as a toilet.'

• A neighbor complained about another neighbor growing more marijuana than a medical grower's license allowed and that 'the skunk odor was obnoxious.'

• A complaint came in from a woman 'wanting to know what she could do about a neighbor who was watching adult movies with their TV turned up too loud causing her 5-year-old to ask questions about the female screaming noises.'

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