Almanac

News - October 6, 2010

Atherton: Cutting cost of code enforcement

by Dave Boyce

Like all California cities and towns, Atherton has a municipal code meant to take care of matters such as the incessant barking of a dog or the fate of a heritage tree or whether it is acceptable to operate a backhoe on a weekday after 5 p.m. (It is not.)

With public finances a major concern, the question before the City Council on Thursday, Sept. 30, was how to enforce the code for less than the current annual cost of $57,000 for a consultant to do eight hours of enforcement work per week. By a unanimous vote, the council approved soliciting new proposals for such services.

In the discussion leading up to the vote, Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis' suggestion of having police officers handle it, as is done in Menlo Park, raised arguments for and against.

Police officers don't know the municipal code, Councilman Jim Dobbie said. He added that he does hear from residents every week about code violations. "We can just walk around and see the rules being broken all over the place," he said.

Resident Gene Elsbree noted that code violations have been a regular occurrence in connection with a home construction project on Fletcher Drive. Over the summer, 18-wheeled dump trucks crept up the winding road before 8 a.m. and back down after 5 p.m., he said.

How hard is it, Councilman Charles Marsala and Bill Witmer asked, for a police officer to tell someone that weekend work is not allowed or that its past time to be operating a backhoe.

Mayor Kathy McKeithen commented that using police officers is not without costs and that uniformed officers at the door would be chilling to residents who expect complaints to be handled in a nonchalant, neighborly, "kind of, would you please" approach.

"Officers should not be perceived as a threat," countered Ms. Lewis. "They should be perceived as our friends (and) protectors." Besides, she added, they can do the job in plain clothes.

There are important privacy concerns, said resident Jon Buckheit during public comment. Once inside, an officer can do a search-and-seizure if he or she sees something to justify it. "It really creates a tense situation," he said.

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