Ballwin struggles with the delicate dance of code enforcement
By: Jim Erickson
It’s an issue most municipalities face: Should ordinances involving the upkeep, appearance and safety of property be enforced aggressively, or should potential violations be pursued primarily when there’s a complaint?
After putting off a discussion at its annual Board retreat earlier this year when agenda items required more time than what was available, the Ballwin Board of Aldermen spent nearly an hour reviewing the issue at its Feb. 11 regular meeting, ultimately reaching a consensus of sorts on the following points.
• When code violations involve potential health and safety concerns, enforcement should be more proactive. There was similar agreement on more rigorous enforcement when repeat offenders are involved, regardless of the type of violation.
• Violations involving aesthetic issues – such as lawns not being cut and trash containers stored in front of homes as opposed to being kept in the garage, at the side or behind a residence – should be pursued when complaints are received.
• City officials should check with other communities to learn if their enforcement procedures offer ideas on modifying Ballwin’s approach.
Based on memoranda written on the issue as long as almost 10 years ago by Tom Aiken, Ballwin’s assistant city administrator, the debate on code enforcement is not new. What Aiken said in those early messages matches the consensus approach expressed by aldermen at the recent meeting.
Aiken noted the city has worked to enforce regulations “in a manner that is courteous and seen as appropriate and fair. At the same time, it is necessary to enforce the code in a manner that is comprehensive and gets a swift correction of the violation.”
But those objectives sometimes are at cross purposes, Aiken conceded. Enforcing provisions on the basis of complaints lead to frequent long-standing violations and inequitable enforcement, he explained.
Alderman Mark Harder (Ward 2) had urged a review of the city’s enforcement approach due to those two factors and last year had championed a new ordinance designed to help get violations corrected more quickly. That measure won the Board’s approval in October.
At the February meeting, Harder showed a series of pictures illustrating a number of possible code violations ranging from commercial vehicles parked at homes where businesses apparently were being operated to boats and recreational vehicles being kept on residential property, and toys other play items and various items of clutter scattered around a yard.
Aiken advised the Board that enforcement could be pursued “however you want,” but added that a more proactive approach of regularly sending inspectors out to look for violations probably would require more manpower, especially during warmer months when lawn maintenance problems are more common. More vigorous enforcement also could mean political consequences, he said.
Alderman Michael Finley (Ward 1) said he preferred to limit “unnecessary government intrusion” and that he saw a danger in an enforcement approach that was too onerous. However, he added that situations involving repeat offenders and dangerous conditions needed to be addressed and that he had “zero tolerance” for anyone who failed to answer a summons to appear in court when cited for a violation.
Asked by Finley if the Board could take action to enforce a zero tolerance for no-shows in court, Robert Jones, city attorney, said it would be difficult to order a judge how to handle such situations.
Both Alderman Frank Fleming (Ward 3) and Alderman James Terbrock (Ward 1) said Ballwin’s various recognitions as a top community in the nation suggested the current enforcement approach has served the city well.
“There always will be some issues,” Fleming said, “but Ballwin hasn’t fared too badly.”
Aiken’s Sept. 4, 2003, memo summarized the enforcement dilemma well.
“The thing we cannot do is make people be good neighbors,” he said.