October 27, 2011, 02:52 AM By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff
A plan to beef up San Mateo’s code enforcement rules has stalled as some on the City Council are concerned an idea to turn an infraction into a misdemeanor may be going too far.
The City Council considered amending the city’s municipal code at its last meeting to also give citation authority to a broader group of city employees, including the public works director, building inspectors, park rangers, the waste/recycling program coordinator, tree maintenance specialist and parking enforcement officers, among others.
The most significant amendment to the municipal code are revisions to the penalties for violations so that a violation of any code can be punishable as either a misdemeanor or an infraction.
Councilman David Lim, however, thinks misdemeanors should be issued by police, since they are properly trained to deal with such situations.
At the very least, Lim said, the authority to issue a misdemeanor should be left up to either department heads, the city manager or the city attorney.
Changes to the municipal code would also allow the waste/recycling program coordinator, as an example, to immediately book someone into jail.
“I think it is a bad precedent to set for the city to allow those positions to put someone in jail. Sworn police officers are trained properly” and better suited to deal with any potential problems with issuing misdemeanors, said Lim, who is an Alameda County prosecutor.
Councilman Robert Ross, a former police officer, also has issues with broadening citation authority and penalties.
To take the infractions from a fine to possible “imprisonment” goes too far for Ross.
“I don’t know I like that, to take civil behavior and make it criminal,” he said.
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, for example.
“These are civil matters and the penalties include daily fees” if someone is found in violation, Ross said. “Do we want to put people in jail for having a sign too big?”
Mayor Jack Matthews understands the concerns considering Lim and Ross both have law enforcement backgrounds but does not have a problem with broadening the rules.
“It is unlikely code enforcement officers will give misdemeanors without the aid of a police officer,” Matthews said.
Councilman John Lee agrees.
He mentioned a parking enforcement officer who was recently spit at downtown after issuing a parking ticket.
“He did the right thing, he called the police,” Lee said.
It is not likely parking enforcement officers will start carrying handcuffs on them, Lee said.
“By allowing the city to charge all violations as misdemeanors or infractions, the city can better tailor the penalty to the specific violation,” according to as staff report to council by Bahareh Abdollahi, assistant city attorney.
The item was continued to a future council meeting for a vote.