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Code-violation complaints down since passage of no-squealing law

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of January 6, 2022)

Code-violation complaints filed with the county have decreased by as much as 20 percent during the six months since Florida enacted a new law prohibiting local governments from investigating non-compliance accusations filed anonymously.

The new statute, which took effect July 1, was designed to deter frivolous complaints filed by feuding neighbors.  But the county’s assistant community development director said the law might also be discouraging residents from alerting local officials to legitimate violations.

“Obviously, for a law like this to become necessary, people were filing frivolous complaints somewhere in Florida, but it really hasn’t been a problem here,” Andy Sobczak said.

“I don’t recall us getting many bogus complaints,” he added, “so based on what we’re seeing in this county, I don’t know what problem the new law is fixing.”

Sobczak said the county receives 2,500 to 3,000 complaints annually – residents may phone them in or use a link on the Code Enforcement Division’s web page – but the number declined “15 to 20 percent” after the law required those filing them to provide their names and addresses.

“It’s not a big number and it’s certainly not going to put us out of business, because we receive a huge number of complaints,” Sobczak said. “But it’s enough to notice.”

Sobczak said many of the callers choose not to proceed or simply hang up the phone when informed they cannot file their complaints anonymously.

“In those cases, it’s usually a neighbor complaining about a neighbor, and they don’t want their neighbor to know who called,” he explained. “Of course, if it’s a public-health or safety issue, we’re allowed to take the complaint and respond to it.”

In fact, the law provides an exception that allows code inspectors to investigate anonymous complaints if they believe the violation presents an “imminent threat to public health, safety or welfare, or the destruction of habitat or sensitive resources.”

According to Vero Beach Police Lt. John Pedersen, who oversees the department’s code-enforcement officers, the number of complaints in the city decreased after the new law went into effect, but he was unable to provide any numbers.

“The new law had some impact, but we didn’t keep track of the number of anonymous complaints that came in because we couldn’t respond to them,” Pedersen said. “We still have plenty of complaints coming in.”

Pedersen said the city’s two code-enforcement officers go on patrols and take a proactive approach that starts with giving warnings, which “usually gets people’s attention.”

In Indian River Shores, meanwhile, the new law has had little impact.

“Not yet, anyway,” said Gary Doyle, the town’s code enforcement officer. “I haven’t seen any change, one way or the other. Most people here are quite willing to give their names and information.

“Of course, you’ve got to keep in mind the clientele in the Shores,” he added. “It’s probably different in parts of Vero Beach and the county.”

Doyle said there are “very few” code-enforcement issues in the town.

Under the new law, code-enforcement officials may continue to investigate possible violations they observe while patrolling the communities they serve, but many such departments are often understaffed – as is the case here.

Thus, the county’s Code Enforcement Division relies heavily on residents alerting officials to violations, especially amid a real-estate boom.

“We’ve never fully recovered from the staff cuts 15 years ago, so we’re not in a position to police the county ourselves, but we do regular sweeps of neighborhoods where there have been problems before,” Sobczak said, adding that the county has only four full-time code-enforcement officers.

Making the task tougher are allegations of targeting when code officers on patrol cite violations in a particular neighborhood.

“The people who live there see it as bias because we did their neighborhood but not the one down the road,” Sobczak said. “So, it’s a challenge, but the code-enforcement officers we have are very efficient and proficient at their jobs.”

He said fewer complaints come from gated communities, which are usually governed by homeowner’s associations that impose and enforce restrictions that are often more stringent than in the county.

Sobczak said many of the calls to the Code Enforcement Division come from licensed contractors filing complaints against unlicensed roofers, painters, carpenters and trades workers.

“That’s one segment of the population that’s not shy about turning people in,” he said, “and that’s a good thing, because using an unlicensed contractor could create safety issues.”

A majority of the complaints, however, are residents complaining about neighbors having vehicles parked in their yards, overgrown grass and weeds, and noise.