by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
If you are a longtime Key Wester and a longtime reader of The Blue Paper, you know that when I ran the paper from 1994 until 2012, Code Enforcement (or Code Compliance, as the department is now known) was in the news a lot. And why not. Allegations of corruption were rampant. And reporting corruption was our specialty. More than a million dollars in fines were going uncollected. It was rumored that many businesses were avoiding coming into compliance with code regulations by simply bribing code officers. And then there were those illegal transient rentals.
Now, it wasn’t like no city official here and there ever attempted to take some action to address the alleged problems in Code Enforcement, Some did. But keep in mind that for 10 years during this period, the City of Key West was “ruled” by the infamous City Manager Julio Avael. Avael got away with all kinds of near-illegal shinanigans (and maybe some shinanigans closer to illegal than just “near”). That could happen because he always seemed to be backed up by several City Commissioners who could use him to forward their own agendas. Although Avael was never charged with any crime or tried in a court of law on criminal charges, he was finally forced out of city government in disgrace in 2008.
The issue of illegal transient rentals provides one example of how a city official’s attempt to solve the problem was thwarted by city management. In 2003, the City Attorney hired an ex-cop named Jim Young to set up a sting operation to build evidence against illegal transit rental operators. The sting operation was quite elaborate. Young’s team would scan national ads promoting transit rentals in Key West. If the owners of those units were not licensed to rent in Key West, the team would contact them and actually book a week. They even had a working credit card to pay for the booking. And volunteers would actually go and stay in the units for the week. In the end, they had open-and-shut cases against the illegal operators.
Well, as you might imagine, some of these operators had prominent local lawyers who complained to Avael. Although Avael knew all about the sting operation and had approved it, he now suddenly developed a case of amnesia. He told the City Commission that he was shocked to learn about what Young had been doing and even suggested that Young might be using the “mystery” credit card to line his own pockets. Then City Commissioner Harry Bethel chimed in, comparing Young and his team to the gestapo. And Young was unceremoniously fired. Young sued and subsequently won. By this time, however, Avael had been relieved of duty and, in 2009, a new City Commission re-hired Young as senior manager of the Code Compliance Department. Young is director of the department today.
At one time, $1.2 million in fines were outstanding for the city of Key West. There were a couple of reasons for that. First, nobody in city government was doing, much of anything to try to collect the fines. And, in many cases, the businesses or individuals who owed the fines were “connected” and were able to go to city management for “mitigation. “So we started to file liens on the properties in question,” Young said this week. And a couple of new ordinances were also helpful. One ordinance spelled out specific guidelines as to how fines could or could not be mitigated– including a rule that says you can’t go to your Bubba in city management and ask for a favor. Another rule said that any negotiation concerning any mitigation can not even begin until the offender is in compliance. Another ordinance prohibits any city agency from issuing any permit if the owner of the property in question owes the city any money.
Young said that Code Compliance now generates about $80,000 a year in fines. “And virtually all of that is collected every year,” he said.
What about those allegations concerning corrupt code officers? “Allegations like that are very hard to prove,” Young said. “But let me say this about that: I have implemented significant changes in the operation pf Code Compliance.” Although Young is talking in City Government Speak here, you know what he means.
On the topic of code officers, one of the innovations that Young has introduced is making code officers available at night, until midnight. If you need a code compliance officer at night, just call the police non-emergency number(305-809-1000) and you will be referred to a code officer.
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