The Oakland City Council says it wants reforms at the city agency that handles building permits and enforces blight laws. At a meeting Tuesday night, the council listened for hours as residents vented frustrations with the Building Services Division, a part of the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA).

Downtown Oakland (Photo: OZinOH, Flickr)

Over the summer the Alameda County Grand Jury released a report (which you can read at Oakland Local) accusing the division of inconsistent and aggressive blight enforcement, going so far as to say it’s “appalled” by the division.The grand jury investigated dozens of homeowner complaints ranging from the imposition of outrageous fines to the threatening behavior of inspectors.

The report is rife with examples of abuses by building inspectors in their dealings with homeowners. For example, one inspector reportedly gave at least one person seven days to fix a code violation that required a city-issued permit, even though it takes 14 days to process. A homeowner was fined more than $18,000 for blight and debris that turned out to be children’s toys in the yard. And the report says the computer system used to track records is almost 30 years old. According to the city, the system is unable to track appeals and cannot provide information on them.

The Grand Jury report cited “an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation” in the department’s dealings with owners.

Tuesday night, the city council discussed the report for the first time. Councilman Ignacio de la Fuente called for an independent investigation into the department; Councilwoman Libby Schaaf publicly apologized to her constituents; and Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said, “I believe that our system is completely broken and that we have not sufficiently publicly acknowledged the magnitude of the problem.”

Audio: Rebecca Kaplan rails against Building Services

Walter Cohen, director of the Community and Economic Development Agency, was at the meeting Tuesday night. Cohen recently resigned from his position but is still in charge until Oct 28. Cohen cited an “adversarial relationship that’s been created” between neighbors anonymously reporting each other for code violations, with city building inspectors get stuck in the middle. Cohen said he wanted to get back to enforcing health and safety violations only, not overseeing peeling paint and overgrown yards. He also said he doesn’t want Oakland residents to be afraid of their government and that he’s working with individual home owners to help them fix their problems.

Audio: CDA director Walter Cohen says he doesn’t want residents to be afraid of their government

Audio: Walter Cohen on the deterioration of the code enforcement program

The council came up with about a dozen demands, asking staff to return at a future meeting with a resolution instituting reforms. Demands included:

  • Create an appeals process with a neutral, outside hearing officer
  • Terminate use of perspective liens
  • Conduct hearings with full documentation for every house demolished within the past 5 years
  • Create a stricter approval process for house demolitions
  • Create a task force that meets regularly to oversee the department
The Oakland Building Services Mess 22 September,2011Caitlin Esch

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