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Task Force 

Armed with pie charts, statistics and a pictorial display of the sort of slovenliness the Humboldt County Code Enforcement Unit frequently deals with regularly, interim County Counsel Wendy Chaitin and Deputy County Counsel Richard Hendry began an overview of the controversial unit last Friday at the first meeting of the Code Enforcement Task Force. (For background, see “Codes, Damned Codes,” Feb. 28, and “Fear in the Hills,” April 24.)

Actually, their presentation came just after the touchy discussion about how hard it has been for members to get a copy of the code enforcement unit’s manual of policies and procedures, and how once they got it they found it difficult to navigate. It’s unnumbered, with no index. Task force member Bonnie Blackberry, of the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project, said she counted 520 pages and hand-numbered them on her copy, found redundancies throughout, and felt the manual overall was “very inadequate.”

“I don’t know why it took a month to get it … and when I did, why it was such a mess,” she said.

Hendry said there’d been an electronic problem that took a while to sort out. But he agreed the manual was a little out of date.

The exchange set the tone for the rest of the meeting. A little bit adversarial, a little bit messy.

The task force was formed on April 8 by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, after it had listened to hours of testimony from outraged residents of rural Humboldt who painted a picture of the code enforcement unit as an entity that has acquired a marijuana-sniffing, gun-toting, roam-the-countryside at will countenance at odds with the purported duty of the unit to enforce building, health and safety codes. The nine-member task force has until early July to investigate the unit.

Hendry’s office is predominantly in charge of the code enforcement unit (the investigators are deputized by the District Attorney; however, D.A. Paul Gallegos temporarily suspended the gun powers of the unit after the public outcry, and the unit itself has been on partial suspension since April 8). Hendry explained the unit’s origins, how it occasionally lacked full-time attorney supervision, and how a multi-departmental oversight committee had met regularly to discuss cases.

Chaitin talked about how, back in December, D.A. Paul Gallegos had talked to her about restructuring the county counsel’s office and how the code enforcement unit is managed, and they developed recommendations. But then the code enforcement issue exploded publicly, she said, “and we never did make those recommendations.”

The pie charts depicted code enforcement unit cases by category (structures, grading and junk trash comprise the bulk of the cases), and the number of parcels in unincorporated Humboldt County, per district, that fall under the purview of the code enforcement unit (it’s a lot). Photos showed junky houses before and after they’d been cleaned up — these garnered no discussion.

Chaitin discussed a survey of code enforcement units that revealed, among other things, that six percent of the units were armed, 62 percent had experienced an officer safety issue, and 13 percent of the inspectors had “been held against their will.”

“So, it’s something to think about,” Chaitin said.

Hendry explained where some cases originate: a state department of conservation’s audit of Williamson Act programs, a Grand Jury report on Subdivision Map Act violations, referrals from other departments. He noted the difference between criminal search warrants — like cops would use to bust an illegal pot grow, for instance — which require probable cause, and civil inspection warrants — which code inspectors can use to investigate suspected code violations — which require only cause. He cited case law that allows some warrants to be delivered without advance notice to a property owner if the unit thinks the owner will try to conceal evidence of a violation.

Wes Juliana, a task force member also from CLMP, asked, “Is one of those circumstances that you expect marijuana is being grown?”

“No,” said Hendry. “We’re not involved in marijuana eradication, that’s for somebody else.”

And so on. A lot of ground was ramblingly covered. The task force made a list of specifics for the county counsel’s staff to provide before the next meeting, among them: page-numbered copies of the code enforcement unit’s manual; an organizational chart of the unit’s power structure; the number of complaints it receives and where they come from; a copy of the state audit of the county’s Williamson Act program; the date of the Grand Jury report on Subdivision Map Act violations; and a full report with timeline of the Woods Ranch/Elk Ridge affair, one of the Code Enforcement raids that brought the issue to public consciousness.

The next meeting is June 6, 10 a.m. in the Board of Supervisors room at the county courthouse.

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Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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