James Livingston got more than he bargained for when he complained publicly about the lack of code enforcement in his Union Triangle neighborhood.
Zoning Officer Steve Strichman sent a code inspector last month to cite just Livingston’s house, leaving the resident with two tickets for minor issues.
Under criticism Tuesday, Strichman insisted that the code enforcement was not intended to punish Livingston for his comments, but Mayor Brian U. Stratton apologized to Livingston and directed Strichman to call the resident as well.
“I apologized for the infraction,” Stratton said. “It wasn’t done with vindiction … but the bottom line is I think things got out of hand here. Perhaps tempers or some other things got in the way … That’s not something I support. That’s not how things are done in this administration.”
Strichman confirmed he ordered a code inspection of Livingston’s house after reading the minutes of a City Council meeting.
“I read, ‘Mr. Livingston complained about the lack of code enforcement on Union Triangle,’ and I said, ‘but he’s got a deteriorating porch,’ ” Strichman said. “But it’s impossible to give a notice to Mr. Livingston without it seeming like it’s in retaliation to something. He’s always got an issue. This is something I have not been sending to code enforcement because of that issue, the timing.”
But this time, he called code enforcement and directed them to review Livingston’s house. Four days after Livingston’s comments, an inspector cited Livingston for house numbers that were about 2 inches too small and for peeling paint on his porch eaves and soffits at 1096 Gillespie St. No other house was cited on that day in that neighborhood.
Stratton said that was wrong.
“What we want to do is not individually cite people but try to do things in a comprehensive fashion,” he said. “We’ll do a neighborhood-wide sweep in the spring. That’s the right way to do it.”
Livingston and City Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard have been asking for a code enforcement sweep of their neighborhood for years. They said the citing of Livingston’s house was infuriating because the inspector would have had to pass by so many other houses with serious violations.
They also complained that the action seemed to be in retribution for Livingston’s critical comments about the lack of code enforcement in the neighborhood.
“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,” Blanchard 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, has already installed larger house numbers, and would have had no objections if the inspector had 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.
He noted that the citation he received could easily be viewed as an intimidating message. 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.”
Van Norden said Strichman was doing his job when he directed an inspector to check Livingston’s property. He said Strichman — like all city employees — is supposed to report code violations to the inspectors.
Even though Strichman’s account of the situation makes it clear that Livingston would not have been cited if he had not spoken at a public meeting, Van Norden said Strichman did not misuse his authority.
The code enforcement action was not legally retaliatory, he said, because there were problems at Livingston’s house.
“You’re thinking of the layman’s definition of retaliatory. I’m talking the legal definition. It’s not retaliation if the violations exist,” he said, but added, “The timing was not the best.”
Stratton also said Strichman did not intend to use his authority in a punitive manner, but said all city officials have to have a thick skin.
“We’re not in the business to be complimented constantly. We have to take the flak,” he said.
Strichman said he has a thick skin. As proof, he listed many recent occasions on which Livingston criticized him without any repercussions.
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Categories: Schenectady County