League City code enforcement and animal control officers could soon write tickets for violations, if the city council approves a new ordinance Tuesday, worrying some residents who fear the new power would lead to overzealous enforcement and costly citations.
Under the current system, a city employee who sees a violation has to call a police officer to the scene to write a ticket. The violation could be for a loose dog or a house not up to city codes.
Police in 2017 issued 127 citations for code enforcement or animal control violations, spokesman Kelly Williamson said.
City officials argue that allowing employees other than peace officers to write citations would be more efficient and would let police spend more time on patrol or investigations. But those who’ve already gotten citations worry it will make it far too easy for the city to make life harder for everyday people.
James Anderson-Valarino is against giving code enforcement any more power, he said.
He fought code enforcement for five years because he had a car for sale at his home, he said.
“They harassed us and called the police to our house when we wouldn’t talk to them,” Anderson-Valarino said. “They wasted countless man hours and tax dollars to write us a $250 fine.”
He fought the citation and it was dismissed, but Anderson-Valarino worries that code enforcement citations will increase and target people who can’t afford all the new tickets that might be generated under the new authority, he said.
Councilman Hank Dugie also opposes the proposed ordinance and voted against it at the Feb. 13 city council meeting. The other seven council members voted to approve it, however.
When it goes back for a second reading Tuesday, Dugie will still oppose it, he said.
“There are a very minimum number of cases where police are asked to come out,” Dugie said. “The current practice isn’t putting too much stress on the police department.”
One thing League City does not have is an unlimited number of employees, Assistant City Manager Michael Kramm said. Kramm also is the former chief of police for the city.
Fears of power-hungry employees are misguided, Kramm said.
“League City is not a ticket-generating entity,” Kramm said. “We prefer a service-oriented approach.”
Calling police officers away from their duties isn’t efficient, Kramm said.
The new ordinance would not apply to fire inspectors, city staff said.
“We are our own policing agency,” Fire Marshal Tommy Cones said. “We investigate arson fires.”
But even when the fire department comes across fire code violations, the first action is rarely a citation, he said.
“Our goal is to first educate,” Cones said. “We try to work with them in correcting deficiencies.”
Dugie remains hesitant about allowing employees other than officers to write citations because it’s more likely to escalate a resident’s small problem into something city staff could make criminal, he said.
“I’d rather see them work together,” he said. “It’s not that I think staff would abuse this new authority. I don’t want to increase the ease of criminalizing something like having 8 inches of grass instead of 6 inches of grass.”
Writing citations can be a volatile situation, Dugie said. An angry homeowner could turn against a code enforcement officer, for example, Dugie said.
But such situations just don’t happen that often, Kramm said.
“We are not putting our employees at a greater risk,” Kramm said.
If an animal control officer issuing a citation encounters a dangerous situation, he can still call a police officer to the scene, Kramm said.
“Most encounters are amicable,” he said. “They are not always agreeable, but they are amicable.”
The proposed ordinance is another tool to improve city services, Kramm said.
“Compliance is preferred to taking a punitive measure,” he said.