Code enforcement violators in San Mateo could face criminal charges for actions that were previously just punishable by fines after the City Council approved an ordinance amending the city’s municipal code last night.
The vote was not unanimous, however, as Councilman Robert Ross stood against the ordinance’s passage citing concerns about how the violations will be enforced.
Going forward, any violators of city code can either face an infraction or misdemeanor. Misdemeanors and infractions, however, will only be issued by police officers or the Harbor Patrol Master and administrative citations can be issued by a wide range of city workers including building and fire inspectors. The penalty for an infraction will be a simple fine while the penalty for a misdemeanor could land the violator in jail.
But City Attorney Shawn Mason said the goal of the ordinance is not to punish the violator but rather to enforce compliance of city code.
"These are minor, technical changes to the code that will make it more flexible,” Mason said. "I don’t anticipate there will be any changes to the number of misdemeanors that will be issued.”
The ordinance the council passed last night will allow for misdemeanors currently on the books to now be charged as infractions and for any offense of the city code to be charged as either an infraction or misdemeanor.
Until the council passed the ordinance, the City Attorney’s Office had no authority to reduce the misdemeanors to infractions.
"There is very little practical difference from the present code,” Mason said about the approved amendments.
Gardeners with noisy leaf blowers or protesters with signs too big could now face criminal charges based on a police officer’s discretion, a fact that does not sit well with Ross.
He also expressed concerns about homebuyers who purchase a property that may have existing code enforcement violations.
"Are they buying into a misdemeanor?” Ross asked.
Only two people from the public spoke on the item, one in favor of the ordinance and another opposed.
"The codes are there but currently aren’t enforceable,” said Elaine Snyder, a Baywood Avenue resident. "This will make it easier to enforce the code.”
But Vincent Boston said some code enforcement officers already go too far in enforcing city law.
"You should take away their ability to issue infractions,” Boston said.
Until last night, only 17 items were listed as misdemeanors in San Mateo’s municipal code. The approved ordinance will now allow the city to treat all infractions as misdemeanors and all misdemeanors as infractions.
Of the 1,700 code violations the city dealt with in 2010, only 101 citations were issued and only one case went before the city’s Community Improvement Commission.
The city’s municipal code covers all kinds of behavior, from the size of permitted signs and what is allowed on sidewalks to issues with homeowners, including junk in yards and the proper installation of water heaters.
The ordinance passed 4-1.
Bill Silverfarb can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.