Enforcement best left to the enforcer

"We drive, and sometimes we speed.Not egregiously, and not chronically. But sometimes the orange needle edges up a little past the posted limit - particularly heading east into town on Wyatt Way, on that annoying uphill stretch of 25 - and we flout the law with momentary impunity.And now, if we ever get stopped by one of Bainbridge's finest, we now know what we'll say:We're with the Review, and we're late to a city council meeting. We're speeding in the public interest!"

  • Thursday, March 9, 2000 3:00pm
  • News

“We drive, and sometimes we speed.Not egregiously, and not chronically. But sometimes the orange needle edges up a little past the posted limit – particularly heading east into town on Wyatt Way, on that annoying uphill stretch of 25 – and we flout the law with momentary impunity.And now, if we ever get stopped by one of Bainbridge’s finest, we now know what we’ll say:We’re with the Review, and we’re late to a city council meeting. We’re speeding in the public interest!While we doubt that would get us more than good laugh to go with our ticket, we offer it as analogy to developments in another sphere of local law enforcement – code enforcement of land use activity.As documented elsewhere in this issue, the city administration is now using, at least informally, an interesting standard in deciding whether to levy monetary penalties against alleged code violators. If you’re an ordinary schmoe putting up a carport without a permit, you might see a stop work order and a fine. But if you want to clear some land, set up a bootleg parking lot or run a private utility main without the proper permits, don’t worry – plead that your project somehow serves the public interest, and you can go about your business. Hey, maybe a council member will even lobby the code enforcement officer for lenience on your behalf.This strikes us as an odd policy, not least because it would seem to open the door to lawsuits. Selective enforcement as policy is only inviting charges of capriciousness from anyone who does wind up getting smacked with a fine. And coming as it does on the heels of two years of complaints over lax code enforcement, we’ll be interested to hear what the public has to say on this as well.While we’re not willing to jump in with the fine ’em all camp, we are somewhat troubled. As we see it, there are two reasons to issue fines for permit violations. One is its deterrent value; if someone in the building community winds up paying a civil penalty, we suspect word gets around. The other is rather more symbolic – level a few fines, and it looks like the city is doing something. Justice is served. People feel better.In a community innately suspicious of the current building boom, we won’t guess which matters more to the public. Either way, there has to be a better standard for fines than who has the most clout with city hall and the council. Politicizing enforcement – whether we’re talking about land use fines or traffic citations – is bad policy all the way around.Mayor Dwight Sutton has welcomed this discussion as a means of bringing the council to confront ambiguities in the city code and the enforcement process. If the council wants to give its two cents on specific laws, fine with us.But we’re more than a little put off by the idea of elected officials trying to work the enforcement process behind the scenes. Note to the council: Will Peddy doesn’t work for you. If you want to run the code enforcement office, run for mayor.”

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