A program by the city of Spokane seeking volunteers to root out code violators among their neighbors has brought criticism, with some comparing the effort to Big Brother.
City representatives have begun attending neighborhood meetings, passing out information seeking people willing to spend about four hours a week as “Citizen Code Enforcement Volunteers.” Such volunteers, the materials say, will be “the eyes on the streets for Code Enforcement Officers,” who investigate a wide range of neighborhood complaints including junk vehicles and illegal dumping.
Heather Trautman, director of Spokane’s neighborhood services and the code enforcement department, said the program has been in place for about three years. There are four volunteers going through the 10-hour training program, which covers processes, forms and protocols.
“The program is really designed to have neighbors assist each other. We have always operated on a complaint basis. This isn’t any different,” Trautman said. “Who knows better than someone living in that neighborhood?”
But Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan said he does not support the idea. He said the city has received several emails, telephone calls and in-person visits complaining about the program, which some compare to George Orwell’s Big Brother.
“I probably would not support something like this just because of the potential for neighborhood disputes and individual family disputes,” Fagan said. “We have seen so many examples of this since January. I can see where a program like this would facilitate the increase of these kinds of neighborhood disputes.”
Michael Chadduck recently attended the Southgate Neighborhood Council where city officials pushed the idea. He agreed with Trautman that citizens can already make complaints, but he asked why the city needs what he views as a semi-trained spy network.
“Why would anybody do this? The budgets are so tight now, what they want to do is get neighbors … watching other neighbors, filing reports and taking pictures and telling the government about it,” Chadduck said. “It’s Orwellian. It’s ridiculous.”
City Council President Ben Stuckart was one of the city officials who responded to Chadduck’s concerns.
“Right now, the only way that a code enforcement officer is called is by a neighbor complaining about a violation of code,” Stuckart said. “If it is Orwellian in nature to call for volunteers, then I think we already live in that Orwellian system, because that is how code enforcement is done.”
Stuckart said the opposite of Chadduck’s concerns would be true.
“If I came out with a $10 million plan to hire code enforcers to go out and look for violations … I think that is actually more Big Brother,” Stuckart said, “instead of having volunteers do what volunteers are already doing.”
Trautman said she’s hoping to dovetail the effort of code violation volunteers with similar volunteer efforts such as community-oriented policing and neighborhood cleanup coordinators.
“We already have a similar force of volunteers … who are dealing with other types of issues,” she said. “It’s a good marriage and crossover.”
She said her department is down two code enforcement officers from last year, but she is hoping to replace one of them to mostly handle substandard housing.
Fagan said he supports volunteerism in most instances, but not for code enforcement.
“If I was in a position to do something with an ordinance, I probably would not support something like this,” he said. “A program such as this obviously has a tendency to bring out the paranoid in people.”