Dealing with the loco part of local government.
I love local government. I absolutely believe it’s the most important level of government because it’s the one that touches people’s lives most directly. Remember: if you have tap water to drink, the toilets flush, your garbage is picked up, and you have a street to drive to work on, there’s probably a local government to thank.
But why is governing so difficult? Why can’t the city just fix problems and move on? Why do we need so many ordinances?
Well, if everyone were conscientious and reasonable, if everyone resolved to be a good neighbor and civic-minded citizen, things would be easier. Let me describe a real world problem. Think about how I tried to solve it, and what you might have done instead.
Problem The owner of a local restaurant contacts me and complains that he is being harassed by city inspectors. For months, someone has been calling in anonymous complaints. The restaurant has been visited by the health department, the fire marshals, parking management, the solid waste department, etc. Each time the inspectors come (sometimes just days apart), the restaurant is shut down during the inspection, costing time and money. Nothing but a few minor technical violations have ever been found, and most inspections find no violations.
Response I contact the various inspectors, and they confirm the restaurateur’s story. They believe the calls come from the same source and feel someone is using the various city inspection divisions to harass the restaurant owner, but they are required to respond to all “legitimate” complaints and cannot ignore the calls.
Solutions No business should be exempt from regulation, but it costs the city time and money to conduct an inspection. The initial complaints were anonymous. I ask that, in the future, only sworn complaints be taken for this location and that a supervisor approve all inspections. City officials agree.
Problem After a lull, the city begins to receive sworn complaints (where the complainant must identify himself) that gradually escalate in frequency. I am contacted again.
Response We can now confirm that the complaints are coming from a neighbor who has made multiple offers to purchase the property on which the restaurant sits. His land surrounds and abuts the restaurant property on three sides. If the restaurant were to close, the property owner might be more inclined to sell the land. There are still no violations of health or safety codes being found during inspections.
Solution I ask that the restaurant be put on an inspection schedule of no more than one visit per department per calendar year, unless significant violations are found.
Additional Information A city employee (and frequent political candidate) who has worked with the neighbor appears at a city council meeting and blasts me for interfering with the complaint process. He charges that I am shielding the restaurant from inspection. He asks for an investigation of my actions. I have documented the steps taken, and city council takes no action. The restaurant changes hands.
Problem The neighbor puts up “no parking” signs. They are on his property, but look like they apply to the city street in front of them. This cuts into the already limited street parking for the restaurant.
Solution I ask that city signs be placed on the city right-of-way, in front of his signs, indicating that parallel parking is allowed along the curb.
Problem The neighbor files official complaints for violations of our building code, a new area of attack.
Solution The city forces the restaurant to remove an outdoor deck used for al fresco dining that does encroach slightly into city right-of-way and to make other exterior modifications. The deck had been in place for several years. Nearby restaurants with similar violations are not cited because our system is complaint-driven.
Problem An existing city right-of-way runs beside the restaurant, perpendicular to the main street. The right-of-way looks like a dirt driveway but is, in fact, an old city street that was never paved. The neighbor claims he needs it to access his property but that it is frequently blocked by restaurant patrons parking on the main street.
Solution The district council member and I meet with both parties and various city officials. We mark the right-of-way so it isn’t blocked, but tell the neighbor that people can drive down the dirt road and park on each side. He has been using it as part of his property. Now he can’t block the street, either. The neighbor is furious.
Additional Issues The neighbor, a businessman, also is an immigrant. The two successive restaurant owners have been gay. The neighbor claims discrimination because the city won’t take his complaints any longer. The two gay restaurant owners claim discrimination because they feel they’re being inspected out of business.
Similar issues play out every day. It’s a tough job to balance the competing interests and needs of all our citizens. People turn to us for help: barking dogs, car alarms, loud music from the outdoor patio of the bar down the street, tall weeds, abandoned houses.
In order for cities to work, we all have to agree to a social compact that curtails some of our rights to our own property, but allows us to turn to government for help.
Annise D. Parker is Houston’s third-term city controller and one of the highest-ranking openly GLBT-elected municipal official in any of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Her website is www.houston controller.org. Parker’s television program, Money Matters , airs Monday on the Municipal Channel (Comcast) at 2 and 8 a.m. and 2 and 8 p.m. The City Controller’s webpage is www.houstontx.gov/controller/index.html. To receive the controller’s newsletter, send an email to [email protected].