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California City Solutions: Santa Maria’s Code Compliance Officers Walk and Talk with Residents

June 19, 2015
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.
 
The 2014 entries are available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California City Solutions. Santa Maria’s Walk and Talk program was submitted in 2014 for the Enhancing Public Trust, Ethics, and Community Involvement award category.Santa-Maria-literature-for-walk-and-talk.jpg
 
In an effort to educate Santa Maria residents about the city’s municipal codes, the city in 2013 launched its Walk and Talk program to send code compliance officers door-to-door to meet residents and share code compliance resources.
 
There is no shortage of work for the city of Santa Maria’s four code compliance officers and their supervisor, who serve more than 100,000 residents in dozens of neighborhoods across the city’s 23 square miles. Many new and younger residents were unaware of the local rules designed to improve the quality of life in their community. With the city’s resources and budget stretched thin there was an unlikely chance of hiring any new officer positions. The city created the Walk and Talk program after the town hall meetings as a proactive approach to this challenge.   
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Like their colleagues in many communities, Santa Maria’s small code compliance team has limited resources and no budget for outreach or marketing, yet the number of complaints is consistently high. Common code violations include vehicles parked on lawns, illegal garage conversions, unpermitted yard and garage sales, and livestock residing in an urban setting.
 
Previous strategies to inform residents about code violations included inserts in city utility bills, information on the city’s website, and to working with the local media to spread the word. Additionally, the city also hosted an information booth at city events to speak with residents about quality of life issues in neighborhoods.Santa-Maria-residents-at-booth.jpg
 
In January 2013, the Code Compliance team, within the City Attorney’s Office, developed the Walk and Talk program. Through its monthly Walk and Talk program, the Code Compliance Division staff directly meets with and educates residents in neighborhoods about quality of life issues and applicable municipal code that apply to their properties. Citations are only issued if officials discover a dangerous or very serious violation while visiting.
 
Code compliance officers are dedicated to providing superior service to the community. They must be customer service oriented. The nature of their work requires them to be firm, fair, and consistent in carrying out their enforcement duties. Among their goals is to develop a collaborative effort with residents.
 
Santa-Maria-walk-and-talk-map.jpgBy meeting residents on their doorsteps in a friendly, educational manner, the code compliance officers and police officers foster trust and openness, encouraging open discussion regarding neighborhood quality of life issues. The officers distribute flyers in English and Spanish that explain the most common municipal code violations in a nonthreatening manner. Residents have the opportunity to share what is going on in their neighborhood so the city can follow up and address their concerns.
 
The program is designed to encourage development of management skills among code compliance officers as a means of team building and for succession planning. Each month’s Walk and Talk is organized by a different officer who is responsible for researching the targeted neighborhood, preparing pamphlets, scheduling the event, hosting a pre-walk meeting to address known risks, assigning officers to specific addresses and blocks and more.
 
The Walk and Talks geographically cover the entire city during a three to four year period, with properties mapped after each visit. Upon returning from the Walk and Talk, the officers are required to write a summary report for the supervisor and city attorney.
 
The officers also keep an eye out for special property nuisance projects, which are referred to “Serve Santa Maria,” a group of volunteers who perform community service projects twice a year. Serve Santa Maria projects range from painting houses, repairing fences, trimming trees, and hauling debris to assist residents who have difficulty complying with the codes because of the lack of funds to perform this maintenance themselves.Santa-Maria-walk-and-talk-door-visit.jpg
 
In the first approximately 15 months of the program, the team visited more than 2,000 residences and spoke with about 5,000 occupants. The city is not only observing a significant reduction in the number of visible code compliance violations, but is finding that residents have been sharing information with family and friends in areas that have not already been covered. Additionally, after being provided information on common code violations, many residents are taking it upon themselves or informing their neighbors to correct their own violations.
 
The city reports that Walk and Talk is making a difference and staff has noticed that residents are more receptive to visits and are willing to engage in face-to-face discussions with officers. The program is adaptable to cover hot topics and trends. For example, complaints about illegal yard sale signs increase during spring months. The team distributes flyers highlighting resources for these trends and displaying city hotlines to report broken streetlights, dumped trash, abandoned shopping carts, graffiti, animal services, city utilities and other information.
 
The City Attorney’s Office has received dozens of telephone calls from residents who wanted to express their appreciation for the code compliance officers who were out in their neighborhood.
 
At the mayor’s direction, the program soon will add an outreach component to address commercial signage and aesthetics for merchants along the city’s main downtown corridors. The Community Development Department ensured that three planners were available for this Walk and Talk, with the goal of assisting businesses to be successful.
 
There is ongoing collaboration with local media to build awareness of key quality of life issues. The Walk and Talk program has received coverage from the local daily and weekly newspapers, all three local TV stations, radio stations, and the local Spanish language TV station, Univision.


 
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