Anyone who has dealt with code enforcement issues in their neighborhood knows that it a terrible experience. I am often asked by people to help with code enforcement issues in their neighborhoods. As a planning board member I don’t have anything to do with code enforcement but am happy to help people who have either gotten little assistance from the city OR the issue has just dragged on for months without any resolution.
During the 2017 primary campaign we regularly got code violation complaints. We started forwarding these complaints to the relevant departments at City Hall – standard customer/constituent service stuff. I kept a log of the items and would periodically follow-up on the requests and drive by the properties to see if there was any progress. Everyone gets their day in court so I didn’t anticipate that these issues would be resolved overnight, however, as May 2017 turned into July 2018 it is interesting to note that fewer than 10% (it is actually less but I am in a good mood today) of the issues have been resolved – many are worse. One of those is an issue that was reported directly to the Mayor and under Phil Izzo’s (Zoning Officer) management it has gone unchanged in the 14 Months since being reported. I know this because I have countless e-mails to inspections (mostly unanswered) for status updates and have had to OPRA information twice (not fully answered by the way).
Code enforcement in Plainfield, based on my observation, is managed (term used loosely) from a defensive position – mostly responding to complaints versus proactively pursuing code violations. Anyone that has been in e-mail exchanges with Phil Izzo can attest to the delayed responses and utter confusion as he forwards your e-mail with some sort of clarifying point about how someone else will handle it – then he disappears. I don’t fault the inspectors by the way, I have spoken to many of them and get the sense that they are eager for all their work to show results. I chalk it up to poor processes, poor management and a lack of effective oversight by the administration and the city council. A management consultant would no doubt have a field day in that department.
Code Enforcement is always important but even more vital right now. With the level of active development taking place in the city, to the credit of efforts by the Mayor and his administration, effective code enforcement is even more of a priority – especially in those areas with active investments. Strict enforcement will enhance these investments, improve quality of life issues and impact property values.
The Gateway Project on South Avenue is a perfect example. The developer is investing over $50 Million in a project on one of the main entry ways into The Queen City. South Avenue (or any other part of the city) can not be improved in bits and pieces just when new development occurs on a parcel of land, existing properties need to be brought into compliance with the laws.
Here are some examples of issues along South Avenue that, if corrected, would enhance the area and help existing and future development opportunities succeed:
Former Delta Gas Station:
The gas tanks and pumps were removed and now the gravel lot service station is crammed with cars (often on the sidewalk) with an unsightly and unused sign (change of use requires removal), outdoor storage of barrels (of who knows what) and numerous cars in various stages of repair in the parking lot – one appears to be used for parts when needed. The grass/dirt lot next door is being used by someone as a holding area for cars, either for the service station or the car lot next door. Not to mention the lack of maintenance to plantings and general litter on property. This mess has got to make the task of getting good renters at the building across Belvidere Road even harder.
Train Station area to Walgreens:
The building across from Netherwood Station has weeds in place of a missing shade tree (replacing was likely part of their approval to build). Grass and weeds in front of convenience store and likely excessive window coverage (Not to exceed 10% of total window area with 1 sign per business per window, not to exceed 2 signs per business on any wall). South Avenue Liquors has a temporary sign chained to a pole (those signs are required to be taken inside after business hours), banners attached to building for too long (Banners are currently allowed 2 times per calendar year for no more than 2 months at a time), window coverage likely over allowed percentage. Walgreens has a sidewalk that has been in various stages of construction for months and property is often littered with garbage.
From Leland to Terrill Road:
Fig Market has banners and pennants up well passed allowed limit (no longer than 2 months), outdoor storage in parking lot, curbside trees that are not maintained. The Verizon lot, south side of street, is a dumping ground for vehicles. While parking is a permitted use they chronically have vehicles sitting for months without moving. Anyone remember the boat and trailer that was there for years? How about the dump truck that replaced it and had trees growing out of the back? Now its a pick-up truck with a salt spreader that has been sitting there for months, along with a Subaru that will soon be overtaken by bushes. B&B auto has numerous “temporary” signs on their fence in addition to really attractive barbed wire – that should help rent some apartments!
Further down at the old nursery location you have barbed wire on the fence and a rusted sign (change of use or occupancy requires sign be removed) and big metal rusted pipes laying on the property – this is next to Dairy Queen & Coffee Box (who have invested money in new signs and landscaping). Further down at Fine-Fare you have tattered banners that have been up too long and the window coverage likely exceeds allowable percentage.
Correcting these, and other issues not mentioned, will aid in the Gateway Projects ability to rent apartments and demonstrate to other investors that we welcome their investment and are here to help them succeed It will also show support for those who do take care of their properties – McDonalds, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Freppe’s and Giovanna’s (not a complete list).
The city should move quickly to start enforcing the codes along the corridor (ideally from Terrill to Watchung), which should include making sure all signage is legal (i.e. they got a permit and followed all guidelines in place at time of installation).
The city council, in their oversight role, should have Mr. Izzo appear before them at a Council Meeting and explain how he is going to improve the management of the department, when significant improvements will be achieved and how success will be measured and reported (regularly to Council and public) so his progress can be monitored and publicly applauded when successful. Mr. Izzo’s appearance will provide him with the opportunity to discuss what help he needs to be successful – new technology, stronger/additional ordinances and what sort of activities take up the valuable time of his dedicated inspectors that impacts productivity.
I mentioned in a prior blog post that hiring additional staff should not be on the top of the list of options. The reason is that the heavy lift should be temporary – so hiring more people that won’t be needed later is a waste of taxpayer money.
For those of you who would like to report a code violation on your street, in your neighborhood or within Plainfield, I encourage you to call or e-mail Mr. Izzo with your complaints @ 908-753-3386 or firstname.lastname@example.org – you should copy all three of your respective council members so they can assist in getting the issues resolved.
1st Ward – Diane.Toliver@plainfieldnj.gov
2nd Ward – email@example.com
3rd Ward – Charles.Mcrae@plainfieldnj.gov
4th Ward – Steve.firstname.lastname@example.org
At-Large, 1st & 4th Wards – email@example.com
At-Large, 2nd & 3rd Wards – Joylette.firstname.lastname@example.org
At-Large, All Wards – Elton.email@example.com
Sean, the problems with Zoning and Inspections goes extremely, extremely deep. There are so many problems that it would take an entire blog post of my own to digest. I have the familiarity of working in the place so I would know! Here’s my top 10 list:
1. No strategy: We all know Plainfield…what areas look good, and which need some sprucing up. The city has no strategy on how to target the areas that have large amounts of code violations. No weekly, monthly or annual department meetings, no meetings with the upper administration to find out what the city’s goals are (most of the staff have no idea what the administration’s goals are or what they’re moving towards), no “sweeps” of areas jointly by department (code enforcement, zoning and building inspectors) to make a large visual impact, no system to track progress and prove accountability even if you did have a strategy…The reality is simple: Plainfield is in a zoning and code enforcement crisis and no matter how much attention you try to draw to it, the administration is either deaf, dumb or blind to the effects both have on property values and quality of life.
2. Poor resources: Evidently the key to efficiency is having the proper tools to carry out the task at hand most appropriately. I cannot say that about the Inspections Division. The staff do not have the best resources in carrying out the job, and more resources need to be APPROPRIATELY allocated. But I can’t trust the current crew to do that effectively themselves. For the amount of taxes homeowners pay in Plainfield there should be weekend enforcement to catch people in the act instead of patrolling 9-5 M-F when people doing work are also at work. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve caught work on the weekends. Plainfield needs to stop looking at itself as a “going concern” and start operating in crisis mode to focus on how to SOLVE PROBLEMS NOT CLEAR DESKS. We cannot operate like other communities and expect to recover from 50 years ago. The entire system is too reactionary for the change that we want to see. If we have a failing downtown, adequately position DEDICATED RESOURCES for police, code enforcement, planning, zoning, etc. If you have the 2nd most historic districts in the State of NJ, then hire dedicated part-time zoning and code enforcement personnel to strengthen the integrity of those districts. How about cross-training the Zoning Officer and Code Enforcement Officers so all of them can be on the lookout and write tickets for each section of the code instead of just their individual section. This way, one city worker can go out to one house and write up ALL the violations instead of just zoning violations or just code enforcement violations. It’s much more manageable and makes a faster visual appearance (and faster to get through the court system since everything is bundled as one case with more charges attached). And please, for god’s sake, have ongoing training of the staff!! The staff should have training constantly to keep improving their skills and staying on top of their field for a more knowledgeable organization.
3. Fear of Retribution: The staff operate in fear of the top. No team efforts, no mutual collaboration allowed, everyone operates in fear instead of opportunity. The staff cannot talk to council members if they call or email, political agendas are carried out that stall violations, violations are intercepted by Phil Izzo and Carlos Sanchez and are never resolved….the list goes on and on. There is an old inter-office memo taped on the wall in the back of the Inspections Division that indicates that inspectors cannot send a violation to city council members (or the mayor I believe) without going through admin first. Why are people above the law? Why can’t we use normal procedures when there is an issue with a property without making it political? How can you expect your employees to even WANT to do a good job and work towards a goal or common task if they are not collaboratively engaged and know a system is in place that they are enforcing that is FAIR to everyone and is not used politically, or used politically against them. If there are illegal houses of worship downtown operating out of storefronts and it’s against the code, the answer to the staff is not “Don’t send a violation to the house of worship because those are large voting blocks and regularly donate to the Mayor’s campaign”, the answer is “Zoning Officer, go in there and issue letters advising them of the issue and send them a violation with time to comply”. What is so hard about that? This is a massive problem that needs correcting, but the current crew are wholly insufficient in being able to solve this particular issue as they bask in it….which leads me to my next point…
4. Top-Down Approach/Vacuum Management: The management structure is a pyramid in city hall, which was effective thinking 50 years ago, but not in the 21st century. The managers operate in a vacuum and just listen to the person in front of them in fear of stepping out of line instead of the other way around whereas the professionals and their recommendations are actually listened to and understood. There is no appetite for academia and thought process when there’s a top-down management structure. No room for imagination or free thought in Plainfield’s government at the moment. Plainfield’s departments operate on islands or as little fiefdoms with poor communication between each other, let alone from the top to the bottom. Plainfield’s systems are not adequate for this city’s unique challenges and needs to be changed to a consultative type of management, where the staff, who are professionals in their roles, are driving the bus and not politicians.
5. Project Based Thinking: Do you remember back in school when you were given an assignment and given the due date to get it done in order for the class to move on to the next task? Well, Plainfield’s offices don’t operate in a project based mind-set whereas you look at ways to improve the city section by section in a project based manor, but instead just aimlessly send out violations and react only when a violation is reported. Inspections needs to think how they can make a visual impact through deadlines for improvement and scheduled walking of neighborhoods.
6. Out of Control Municipal Court: The court system in Plainfield is truly a work of chaos. The judge and prosecutor can have a mind of their own and almost always goes with minimum fine recommendations despite what the ZO/Code Enforcement Officers request. They are reluctant to go higher on fines, and give out adjournments like candy on Halloween. How can you get justice with a court that does not support justice and prosecution of property violations. In other words, there is a gap between the standards set forth in the city’s Land Use Ordinance/Property Maintenance Code and the court’s standards on punishment.
7. High Volume: I don’t think Plainfield residents understand the sheer amount of volume that goes through those offices. Zoning pumps out almost a thousand reviews a year alone. The amount of work in the busiest months is simply not feasible for one zoning officer or the code enforcement staff. Between inspections, zoning reviews, court prosecution days, issuing violation letters, helping customers on the phone and in person, and the many other tasks that are required of the staff, how much is expected of the staff to get done in one day? Seriously? Plainfield has an extremely high amount of volume and equal amount of delays for permit processing and it’s for a reason and it’s an inconvenient truth: the staff are overwhelmed. Even Stevie Wonder can see it from a mile away. The downtown should have a dedicated zoning officer. The historic districts should have their own zoning officer. The West End should have their own zoning officer, and same with the East End. That is the only way possible to get ahead of the work and again, start SOLVING PROBLEMS NOT CLEARING DESKS by focusing on a game plan on long term stabilization of neighborhood aesthetics.
8. Poorly integrated/Poorly implemented Inter-office System: Ahh! The city’s million dollar baby. The Mitchell Humphries interoffice software that was supposed to be life changing and change the communication within the city forever has turned out to be a bust. The city has not rolled the software out to Planning and some other departments despite over two years of software rollout. This must be the longest software rollout in world history as it does not take this long to get all departments online. In addition, the software is extremely buggy, and the Inspections Division’s work output has slowed tremendously under utilization of the software to generate letters and input complaints/violations. The software is tedious and cannot be used to its full potential without all departments being online. Poof to efficiency!
9. Inadequate Offices: Most of the offices in city hall are falling apart except the Mayor’s office. In the case of inspections, the offices are a fire hazard by state fire codes, the offices are cramped, the roof leaks, mold growing on the walls, mismatch paint, carpets from the 90s, overflowing filing cabinets and stacks of papers, etc. Improve the physical efficiency in the offices, not just employee tasks.
10. Phil Izzo: Our resident Assistant Director of Public Works is also the Zoning Officer for the city, which was given to him as a way to intercept zoning violations and complaints while the Assistant Zoning Officer does all the work (but hey, Philly gets paid. Sweet deal.). Phil is not the right person to complain to if there is a code violation as his sole job is to get rid of the complaint, NOT the violation and was hired by the city to do exactly that because they were receiving a large number of complaints over the years on the Inspections Division and Phil’s job was to stop the complaints. Well, somewhere along the lines it was lost in translation that stopping the complaints is not the same as stopping the violations. Oy vey! Houston, have I found our problem?
Because of the high turnover of employees in city hall, the city has also lost a lot of legacy knowledge of existing systems because of poor cross training of positions over the years and hiring people with little or no experience in the job they are supposed to be “perfecting” (see #10).
I could go on and on but the above are the key main problems I see. The management, the staff, the strategy and the court are the four key topics and they need to be corrected before Plainfield improves and becomes a better place to live. The question becomes will the current regime have the stomach for change?
run Ronny run!
Thank you Sean for bringing some of these issues to the forefront. I’ve heard many of the politicians also complain about inspections/zoning and the like, some even saying “it’s not fixable”. Previously the Mayor targeted Planning for outsourcing – maybe it should have been inspections.
Both you and Ron Johnson spoke of a lack of resources, here’s a novel idea; let’s get rid of the Certificate of Compliance (C of C), (not to be confused with the C of 0, certificate of occupancy) and allocate those inspectors to the Zoning and/or Inspections departments.
Many years ago, the City created the C of C. Their intentions were good as they wanted to put pressure on homeowners to make repairs. But the process is a waste of resources, the inspectors are unskilled as home inspectors, and all it ended up doing was to promote bad repairs by anxious sellers.
Government shouldn’t be inspecting homes for sale.
Very few municipalities in the state have the C of C inspections – and for a good reason.
Where is my tax money going? I think Ron brings up some valid points, although can you hear the stuff in the background? “He’s a disgruntled ex- employee or citizen”. “He has his own agenda”.
Plainfield has turned from the Queen City into the Excuse City. Never a reason to fix the problem, because it doesn’t exist.
Thanks Ron for your insight.
Thank you for your comments Jeanette/Jim. I never comment on articles for concern of coming off “disgruntled”, but the reality is any ex employee that gives constructive criticism or suggestions are usually labeled that way. I decided to take the chance last night just to shed some light on some of the big topics because the article lit a fire under me since this is my field :)! I too have reported over 30 violations since leaving the city and not a single violation was solved. 6′ solid fences in front yards, paving entire lots far beyond the impervious coverage, outdoor storage, chain link fences being installed, illegal businesses in residential zones, the list goes on and on. Not a single success story came out of my numerous emails, phone calls and personal visits for months.
And Jim, I think your idea of getting rid of the C of C is a great idea. It would save so many resources that can be shifted to enforcement.
I went to city hall inspections the other day to complain about a violation and was given a form to fill out. I filled it out a week ago and have not seen any changes made on the house and property a flipper recently purchased. I will email it to you.
Great points. Thanks for this posting. The non-enforcement of maintenance codes helps to negatively distinguish Plainfield from any neighboring town. Helping to keep property values low. Streets perpetually filled with yard waste, cars abandoned in driveways ( 522 Leland-7 years now),
1330 Martine-4 years, etc) And trash cans in streets 4 full days a week (1320 Chetwynd, etc). Even those who used to be mindful are adding to the eyesore that is Plainfield. I have dealt with all the city employees you mentioned and nothing gets done. Even organized grass roots groups have tried to clean up Plainfield. Do we give up and accept or move?