Despite a little dissent, the League City council was right in voting to allow code enforcement and animal control officers to issue citations for violations such as allowing dogs to run loose, unmown grass and dilapidated structures.
Until that vote during a meeting Tuesday, only sworn police officers had the power to issue municipal court citations for minor violations of city codes. Civilian city employees who witnessed such violations had to call a police officer to the scene to issue the citation.
That’s about the least efficient and most expensive way to enforce city codes because it requires two people, one of whom must be a peace officer, which, in most places, earn more than code officers.
Councilman Hank Dugie had opposed the ordinance and voted against it twice, once Feb. 13 and again Tuesday. He argued that the change was unnecessary and that empowering civilian employees to issue citations might lead to overzealous enforcement.
“I’d rather see them work together,” Dugie 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.
“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.”
Among the flaws in requiring a police officer to be involved, however, is that it tends to criminalize an act that isn’t a crime, but merely an administrative infraction. Police exist to deal with crime, calling them to deal with tall grass or a fallen section of fence is an overreaction.
It also undermines the police department’s ability to focus on its primary mission, puts additional wear and tear on police vehicles and ensures that code enforcement will be a low priority as officers spend their time dealing with more serious matters.
It’s unlikely the change will lead to overzealous enforcement, and the argument that it would begs a question about what would constitute overzealous enforcement.
Code violations typically are fairly objective matters; the grass is taller than allowed or it’s not; a car is parked in the yard, or no car is parked in the yard.
Cities have an obligation to enforce their codes as close to universally as possible, or else they are enforcing their codes unfairly and should get rid of them.
Driving the fear of overzealous enforcement may be notion that the city will try to use fines for code violations to increase revenue, which is unlikely.
In our experience, the least preferred method of enforcing codes is by issuing citations. It’s expensive because it involves the municipal courts and its notoriously difficult to collect the fines and fees.
It’s more cost-effective for the city to correct code enforcement violations with a simple conversation and maybe a stern letter.
In most cases, code enforcement is a money-losing necessity for cities. At best, they may break even, but none we’ve ever seen was banking big money through its municipal courts.
In fact, when city managers have pleasant dreams, they may very well be about a world in which everybody keeps his grass trimmed and his dogs penned and there’s no need for code officers and city courts.
The bottom line is that most cities of any size allow civilian code enforcement officers to issue citations for code violations, for the same reason they use civilians to issue parking citations — it’s cheaper and just as effective.
• Michael A. Smith