Monday, April 11, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy

Code Department slammed (again) in city audit

The department charged with policing overgrown grass, short-term rentals and illegally discarded junk fails to follow a consistent protocol for overseeing violations and does not enforce violations with equal fervor on city-owned property, reads a report from the Office of the City Auditor. In a review of 306 code complaints, the auditor took issue with 77 percent of them.

“Code violation investigation, documentation, and resolution practices vary across cases, due to a lack of management oversight,” writes the city auditor. “Inconsistency may also result from gaps in procedural guidance provided to field staff.” The issues pointed out in this audit, writes the auditor, mirror those brought to light in a 2010 audit.

Code Department spokeswoman Candice Cooper told the Austin Monitor that the findings in this audit are no surprise to her department.

“As a matter of fact, we were aware of some of the challenges that were discussed in the audit, and (for) some of them, we’ve already completed several tasks related to making sure that those findings are addressed,” she said.

The audit documents missteps at each stage of a code complaint. The auditor writes that in roughly half of the 306 reviewed complaints, residents in violation never received official notices.

In general, after a complaint comes in, the department requires that an initial inspection be scheduled or completed within two business days. According to the audit, that deadline was met only 49 percent of the time.

Residents were also given varying deadlines to correct the same violation.

“(C)itizens were given different deadlines ranging from 7 to 30 days to correct work without permit violations,” writes the auditor. According to the report, deadlines historically fall to the discretion of staff in attempts to provide better customer service.

Cooper said Austin’s rapid growth is one major factor in the department’s inability to keep up with the work at hand. In the past five years, the department has nearly doubled its staff – from 69 full-time employees to 117 – according to a memo from Code Department Director Carl Smart to the city auditor. At the onset of budget season, the department will be looking to fund more positions.

“Part of this process is looking at our unmet needs as it relates to personnel and technology,” said Cooper.

The auditor also found less extensive review of violations on city-owned property – potentially indicating preferential treatment for land run by the city. In 42 percent of cases involving city property, code staff did not visit the site or photograph alleged infractions – as policy requires. The auditor also noted delayed investigations of city-owned property.

“For example, one citizen complained that lights from a large festival were causing a nuisance,” the audit reads. “The inspector did not start the investigation until more than a month later, at which point the complaint was dismissed because the festival was no longer occurring.”

While the Code Department has the power to notify other city departments of violations, it does not have the ability to carry out enforcement against government entities (including itself, the city). To combat this problem, the department is part of a task force that includes the Office of the City Manager, the Office of Real Estate Services and the Building Services Department to figure out the best way to ensure that city properties remain up to code.

This most recent audit of the Code Department will appear before some City Council members at today’s meeting of the Council Audit and Finance Committee.

Update: Audio from McGlinchy’s KUT piece is below.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee: a sub-group of the Austin City Council. It's members are charged with oversight of city fiscal operations and anything that falls under the purview of the Office of the City Auditor.

Austin Code: Formerly known as Code Compliance, this is the city department that handles enforcement of city code violations. Its work is complaint-driven.

Office of the City Auditor: This city department is created by the city's charter in order to establish and ensure "accountability transparency, and a culture of continuous improvement in city operations."

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