Code Red

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Posted October 3, 2007 in Feature Story

Riverside resident Johnny Corina had a feeling he was being singled out for “special treatment” by the city’s code enforcement division.

He and his family had lived in the house in the 2800 block of Westridge Road for nearly 10 years without incident, when, last summer, the property was suddenly in the city’s crosshairs. When Corina parked one of his cars on his front lawn, code enforcement ticketed him for not parking it on concrete. When his pickup truck broke down, code enforcement threatened to tow it for leaving it at curbside for longer than 72 hours. When he frantically worked on the pickup to make it operational, code enforcement ticketed him for the car parts that accumulated on his lawn.

Corina, 63, doesn’t deny that he violated city municipal code. City law is clear: no cars parked on the grass; no cars left in the same spot for longer than three days; no trash at curbside outside of specified receptacles. What troubled him were the inflexibility of the enforcement, and the seemingly arbitrary nature of it.

“For a while there, it seemed like they were out here all the time—they wouldn’t give me enough time to fix the problems,” he says. “There were people down the street with cars on their lawns, and I never saw them getting ticketed.”

Corina wondered if he was being singled out because of race—he and his family are black, and his wife is vice president of the Riverside NAACP. But other residents on his block were also black, and they didn’t seem to be having a problem with the city. No, it had to be something else—but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what it could be.

As it turned out, Corina wasn’t the only one wondering what was going on. A former Riverside community development employee—who we’ll call “Matt,” because he would only speak to the Weekly on condition of anonymity—said he couldn’t help but notice that city officials had developed an inexplicable fascination with the Westridge property—so much so that they were willing to break the law to keep up the pressure on Corina.

According to Matt and two others—an active code enforcement officer who also asked to be anonymous, and a senior official of one of Riverside’s largest labor unions—residents have become unwitting pawns in internal municipal politics, while city employees are victimized by unofficial, dangerous and possibly illegal policies.

According to Matt, a city code enforcement officer was ordered by Code Enforcement Manager Mark Salazar to tow Corina’s pickup truck from his home. The officer arrived at the address and saw that the pickup had just eight hours earlier been tagged with a “72 move-or-be-towed” notice—meaning Corina still had about 64 hours before the pickup could be impounded. When the officer called dispatch and said he couldn’t legally tow the vehicle, Salazar accused him of ignoring a direct order and insisted the truck be removed. When the officer still refused, Salazar dispatched two other code enforcement officers to tow Corina’s vehicle onto his property, drop it in the driveway, and then tag it with a “10-day inoperable vehicle on private property” notice. The officers also refused, citing city law.

Both Matt and the anonymous code enforcement officer we interviewed say the Westridge Road episode was hardly an isolated case. Throughout the city, they say, residents are being handed code citations not because the alleged violations are so onerous, but because Salazar is intent on driving up his department’s statistics in order to please the City Council. To accomplish this goal, they say, Salazar last year told code enforcement officers—during a meeting at which Matt was present—that they were each required to issue at least “one ticket-book’s worth of tickets” (or 25 tickets) a day.

“One of my colleagues instructed his supervisor that a quota system was illegal,” Matt says. “That was passed on to Salazar, who repeated his order—25 tickets a day—or face termination. The officers were literally in fear for their jobs, so they were going out and writing tickets as fast as they could, working through their breaks and lunches.”

Matt says that of greater concern to him than the quota system was Salazar’s insistence that code enforcement officers have no more than 20 “open” cases at any given time.

“(The officers) kept telling them that they had more than 20 cases that were life, health and safety issues,” Matt says. “Salazar told them, ‘You’ve got only 20 cases—you pick.’”

As a result, Matt states, code enforcement officers routinely wrote off code violations—including pools without proper fencing, dangerously dilapidated structures and piles of fragrant, vermin-producing trash—simply to keep their open cases under the magic number of 20.

According to the anonymous code enforcement officer, workers couldn’t fight the ticket quota system for at least two reasons: it was unofficial, meaning that it existed nowhere in writing. And the language of the policy changed the further one went up the food chain to question it.

“You couldn’t pin them down on it,” the officer says. “If you didn’t follow the policy, Salazar said you weren’t meeting your ‘numbers.’ If you went higher up, they’d say you were ‘underperforming.’ If you complained to HR, they acted like they didn’t know what you were talking about. They’d say the problem was you were ‘insubordinate,’ or ‘failing to meet expectations.’”

Matt says the new policies placed code enforcement officers in a bind: If they followed them, they might place residents in jeopardy and quite possibly violate the law. If they didn’t, they might find themselves in the same boat as their former colleagues in the so-called “72-Hour Abatement Team.”

According to sources, the 72-Hour Abatement Team was an unofficial group of three senior code enforcement officers and their supervisor, Joe Estrada, each of whom were targeted for “removal” after running afoul of management. To accomplish this goal, city officials in March 2006 exiled the team to working out of an unheated, un-air-conditioned metal shack in the “Corporate Yard”—a Lincoln Avenue property where the city stores its trash trucks and buses. The shack had previously been used as a soil-testing laboratory, Matt says, and was filled with hazardous materials, including boxes labeled “Radioactive—Do Not Open.”

“The shack was basically a killing station for getting rid of unwanted officers,” Matt says. “The team members were all top code enforcement officers, as far as seniority. Management took away their laptop computers and gave them to officers with less seniority, so there was no computer access at all. All the fire extinguishers in the place were expired. There weren’t enough chairs for everyone to sit down. The surfaces were covered with about an inch of soil—Joe Estrada had to clean the soil off with a push broom.”

If Matt’s claim that officials posted the team to the metal shack in order to get rid of them is true, they succeeded. Within months, one officer resigned, another was fired, and a third wound up on long-term stress leave. Estrada took the job of code compliance manager for the city of Rancho Mirage. Reached for comment, he confirmed the existence of the team, but refused to discuss the matter further, saying the matter “was headed for court.”

The officers were all members of Service Employees Union International Local 1997, the union representing 869 Riverside city employees. The officer who was terminated was an SEIU shop steward, fired—sources say—after being accused of insubordination for repeatedly asking to see his personnel file. According to Gregory Hagans, head of Local 1997 and a member of its executive board, the steward was targeted for removal by Riverside City Manager Brad Hudson because, Hagans says, Hudson “came from the county and the county doesn’t believe in shop stewards.” The other two officers were targeted for speaking out on union issues, he said.

“This is how they tried to say (the shop steward) was insubordinate: In our Memorandum of Understanding with the city, it states our employees can ask their supervisor or the HR director to look at their personnel files. This employee asked his supervisor several times both verbally and in writing to see his file, and nothing happened. The last time he asked, he sent a copy of his request to HR, which contacted his supervisor and told them to write him up for insubordination because he violated the chain of command. In fact, following the chain of command was exactly what he did. They put him on paid administrative leave and ultimately fired him. The case is in arbitration now, but it’s just offensive.”

Hagans says the treatment of the code enforcement officer was just another example of anti-union sentiment held by Hudson, who became city manager in 2005 after serving as assistant county executive officer for Riverside County’s Economic Development Agency. Since taking office, Hagans says, Hudson has fired at least 16 dues-paying city employees and repeatedly violated the terms of its contract with the union.

As a result, Hagans says, the union has filed three complaints against the city with the state Public Employees Relations Board since last year. One of the complaints arose when Hudson stopped granting employees flexible work hours without first “meeting and conferring with the union, as required under its contract, Hagans says. The complaints were resolved, he added, when “the dates for arbitration approached and the city suddenly decided they needed to negotiate with us.”

“It took one year before the city manager even came and introduced himself to the troops,” Hagans added. “He’s out there doing these firings and chopping heads off, and they didn’t even know what he looked like. He’s out of touch with the community and he’s out of touch with his workers. You’ve got a city management that shows no dignity or respect for its employees. Now, we have a dignity-and-respect article in our contract, but they don’t seem to care about that. To them, we are just fodder.”

Calls to Salazar and Hudson were returned by city spokesman Austin Carter, who asked that questions be sent in writing to him. Carter responded to the Weekly’s emailed questions with a written statement:

“The City is extremely proud of its Code Enforcement Division,” he writes. “The hardworking members of this team are making tremendous strides to enhance community livability for all Riverside residents.

“Any allegation that City employees were required to work in proximity to ‘radioactive’ is absurd,” he continues. “Baseless allegations by a few disgruntled employees do not, in any way, detract from the outstanding professionalism of award-winning City workers who serve Riverside residents day in and day out.”

Hagans has an ongoing, nine-year-old lawsuit pending against the city—something he didn’t mention in interviews with the Weekly. George Daniels—Hagan’s boss at the union’s umbrella organization, SEUI Local 721—says he isn’t aware of any anti-union sentiment on the part of Hudson, and chalked up any friction with Local 1997 to Hudson being a new city manager and undergoing a period of adjustment.

City Councilman Art Gage (as of press time, votes were still being counted in Gage’s reelection bid) also dismissed the notion that Hudson is anti-union, saying that 16 terminated employees is a reasonable number for a city with more than 2,800 employees.

“I haven’t heard anybody complain about this,” Gage says. “The union has had no hesitancy in the past in coming to the City Council in massive numbers and complaining. I’ve heard nothing but good things about what was going on in code enforcement. It seems to be a happy group, with more authority than it used to have.”

While it may be true Gage has received no official complaints from SEUI Local 1997, he certainly has heard grumblings from a city union with regard to Hudson. The Riverside Police Officers Assn., which represents some 440 officers, recently castigated the city manager for promoting two police captains under “at-will” contracts. The move, which would essentially allow Hudson to fire the captains at any time and was viewed as a direct attack on the union, so incensed the organization’s leadership that it withdrew support of council incumbent Steve Adams.

Hagans says that Hudson’s problems with his union have resulted in a dangerous situation for city residents.

“The guys in the 72-hour Abatement Team were all senior officers,” he says. “The city put them out and gave their work to junior technicians, who are now doing work they weren’t trained to do. When you don’t have the people trained to do the work out there enforcing code, that puts residents at risk.”

 

 

 


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