A city official sent code enforcers to a resident’s house after that resident made critical comments at a city council meeting, officials confirmed Tuesday.
They said Zoning Officer Steve Strichman sent a code inspector to James Livingston’s house at 1096 Gillespie St. after Livingston criticized him at privilege of the floor during a city council meeting.
Four days after Livingston’s comments, an inspector cited Livingston for house numbers that were about two inches too small and for peeling paint on his porch eaves and soffits. However, Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said the action was not a retaliatory attack.
“It’s not retaliation if the violations exist,” he said. “The timing was not the best. It did follow his reading a snippet of the minutes of a meeting he did not attend. Mr. Livingston was lamenting the fact that there was never enough code enforcement in the Union Triangle neighborhood. Mr. Strichman responded to the complaints of a lack of code enforcement.”
Van Norden said Strichman responded by sending an inspector to specifically cite Livingston’s house. No other house was cited in that neighborhood on that day.
“There was no one else in violation, potentially,” Van Norden said. “Mr. Livingston complained and the person whose property was in violation was Mr. Livingston’s.”
But city Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard, who lives in the neighborhood, said many other houses have serious violations. She has often offered addresses where such violations exist in Union Triangle and has repeatedly asked for a code enforcement sweep of the entire neighborhood, to no avail.
She said Strichman should not have sent an inspector to target Livingston’s house.
“It appears to be an act of intimidation of someone who spoke at privilege of the floor and that needs to be a sacrosanct privilege,” she said, adding that Strichman should apologize.
Livingston said he would be satisfied by an apology and a reprimand. He emphasized that he’s not contesting the code violation citations and has already installed larger house numbers.
But he noted that all city code violations warn of substantial fines and jail time if the owner does not make the required repairs.
“That’s pretty scary. Anything of this sort has a chilling effect,” he said. “The message would be, the public shouldn’t come out and speak. I see this as retribution for public criticism of a city official. The aim is perhaps to scare or intimidate a resident who has simply asked a city official to do his job and do his job well.”
Livingston said he was particularly frustrated because he had been criticizing Strichman for not thoroughly enforcing city codes in the Union Triangle historic neighborhood. He said he wouldn’t have minded the citations if the inspector had only continued down the street and issued citations to every other violator.
“We’d like to see fair and equal enforcement of the law, and it falls on the zoning officer,” Livingston said.
Van Norden said Building Inspector Keith Lamp has agreed to send a team into the neighborhood for a sweep soon.
That decision came out of a meeting the mayor called this afternoon to sort out the situation. The issue has evolved slowly over the past month, beginning when Livingston called Blanchard to complain that he had been unfairly targeted by code enforcement in response to his criticism.
At the time, Blanchard suspected Van Norden ordered inspectors to review his house and called Van Norden, who immediately launched an investigation to determine who ordered the one-house inspection. Van Norden said he was furious because the timing made it look like he was the one at fault, since he responded angrily to Livingston’s comments at the council meeting and then had a verbal altercation with Livingston after the meeting.
“Damn straight I wanted to know who’d done it when my name was in the middle of it. I’m the one who goes around City Hall yelling at people who do this kind of thing,” Van Norden said. “I have better things to do with my time than chasing them around for benign code violations like peeling paint which they can’t deal with in March anyway.”
He said he determined quickly that Strichman had ordered an inspection of Livingston’s house.
“I got an answer within 20 minutes,” he said.
He informed Director of Operations Sharon Jordan, because the mayor was not at City Hall. No further action was taken until Livingston brought up the issue at Monday’s council meeting, apologizing for blaming Van Norden for the inspection and condemning Strichman’s actions.
Mayor Brian U. Stratton said then that he had no idea who had ordered the inspection, but called this afternoon’s meeting with Strichman and Van Norden. At the meeting, Van Norden said, Strichman admitted to sending an inspector out in response to Livingston’s comments.
Van Norden — who had criticized Strichman’s actions earlier in the day — said he was then directed by the mayor to defend Strichman.
“The city’s position is that it was not retaliatory,” Van Norden said, arguing that Strichman did nothing wrong, even though Livingston would not have gotten a citation if he hadn’t spoken up at a meeting.
He said Strichman is supposed to report code violations to the inspectors for review.
“That is part of Mr. Strichman’s job. That is part of all our jobs and we all do it on a fairly regular basis,” he said.
But he added that Strichman was aware of the violations a year ago and had not chosen to press the issue until he read Livingston’s comments from the meeting.
Strichman did not return a call seeking comment.
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