On Daytona: A Moral Responsibility

When we first came to live together in groups, and later tribes then communities, our society developed certain moral imperatives – a concept described by 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant as a strongly-held principle that compels a person to act from a place of pure reason.

For instance, stopping at a red light is a modern moral imperative.

Conversely, making a promise that you do not intend to keep is a great example of not following a moral imperative.  According to Kant’s thinking, violations of “moral law” are ultimately self-defeating and contrary to sound reasoning.

Let’s carry this concept out a bit further.

Imagine a dystopian nightmare where drivers may or may not obey the rules of the road.

Have their vehicles properly insured – or not.

A place of complete uncertainty where we elect our neighbors to high political office with the reasonable expectation that they will serve honorably, in our communal interest, and follow the basic rules of ethics and morality – or perhaps they will simply ignore us – and use their important positions for self-enrichment, personal aggrandizement, or to profit their friends and political benefactors.

An environment where greedy slumlords openly market horribly dilapidated and sub-standard residential properties to the working poor, foregoing preventive maintenance and basic upkeep for years in favor of enhanced profits.  Perpetuating the exploitative Catch-22 inherent to “affordable” housing.

A world where a few officials with the moral responsibility to set community standards and affect positive change openly and arrogantly oppose reasonable efforts to provide the homeless even basic shelter from the elements.

Can you imagine what that society would look like?

Of course you can.

We live it daily here on the Fun Coast.  Am I wrong?

I recently read a letter to the editor in the Daytona Beach News-Journal entitled, “The other side of aggressive code enforcement,” authored by an absentee Daytona Beach property owner.

While lauding the News-Journal’s “Tarnished Jewel” series, and “…subsequent steps city officials are taking to address exposed issues,” the lady, who listed her place of residence as Texas, went on to say, “In the endeavor to guarantee that code enforcement is empowered to pursue true negligence, unhindered city commissioners must guarantee that International Property Maintenance Code provisions ensure fines and other punitive actions are tempered with judgment — allowing owners to address issues while keeping penalties proportional to violations.”

Apparently, the City of Daytona Beach slapped a $15,000 code enforcement lean on the absentee landlord’s rental after a tenant repeatedly parked a vehicle on the grass in violation of city ordinance.

Ultimately, she felt the frequency of the violations were exaggerated by city officials as the fines total almost as much as those placed on a decrepit nearby home which officials have condemned as unfit for human habitation.

The result of such disparities is an agency that can be manipulated into a tax-funded intimidation mechanism by feuding neighbors with personal grievances.”

In the opinion of the writer, “Code enforcement officials must be empowered with the means to this end (keeping neighborhoods attractive), but it is imperative that checks and balances assure vigilance so waste and abuse are avoided. 

 Otherwise, a tool of our community becomes a contrivance for harassment and revenge.”

 I agree.

But it is also a clear imperative that those earning income from apartments and rental homes maintain their properties in accordance with housing codes, life-safety regulations and the aesthetic standards of the community.

Frankly, I’ve only read the owner’s side of the story – but I find it difficult to believe that her property racked up $15K in code enforcement fines because a tenant occasionally parked on the lawn – or because a disgruntled neighbor “manipulated” the system.

I could be wrong.

In my opinion, the landlord’s views on complaint driven code enforcement efforts – and allowing even the appearance of political involvement in this important quasi-judicial process – ultimately leads us back to the filthy, dilapidated place we are working and spending to escape.

I am not unsympathetic to the writer’s plight – but there are legal avenues and processes already available to remedy the situation she described without compromising the system.

From the vantage point of over 30-years in policing – to include the enforcement of municipal codes and ordinances – elected officials shouldn’t be within a country mile of these efforts, let alone have the “unhindered” ability to influence the administration or prosecution of violations – or impose their politically motivated “judgement” on the compliance process.

In my experience, any code official worth his or her salt knows when the process is being weaponized by feuding neighbors or commercial interests – and the due process requirements and consistency of documentary evidence needed to prove a violation leaves little room for a “set up.”

Look, the City of Daytona Beach is at a crossroads.

One path leads to a renaissance – a rebirth of our beachside and the revitalization of long-neglected core tourist areas and attractions, which, despite what the power brokers would have us believe, is the true economic engine of the Daytona Beach Resort Area.

The other dark and slippery road returns to more of the same – malignant blight, stagnation, an artificial economy based on government hand-outs and the creeping despair and squalor that is destroying any sense of community – and the quality of life for residents throughout the Halifax area.

By all metrics, there are extremely encouraging signs of progress.

The code enforcement process in the City of Daytona Beach is based upon the rule of law – grounded in the important concepts of fairness and due process which protect the Constitutional and property rights of all citizens.

The system contains ample provisions for direct oversight and discretion at all levels, from the officer on the street, to the legal decisions of the fair but firm Special Master, David Vukelja.

History evidences that a “complaint driven” process is a toothless method that takes self-initiation away from officials charged with uncovering violations in favor of waiting for someone to reach the point of exasperation and make a formal complaint.

This impotent process has left large swaths of the city in virtual ruin – and has kept compliance officers playing catch-up citywide.

It has also allowed the continued proliferation of slumlords who routinely – as an established business practice – blatantly skirt codes and ordinances.

In my view, when you allow any viable avenue for elected officials to meddle in the process, use their political power to advocate for constituents outside the Special Master’s purview, or exert personal influence over the actions (or inaction) of subordinate code officers, you are ultimately left with an incredibly frustrating, completely illegitimate system that is ripe for abuse.

The City of Daytona Beach continues to take heat for the perceived lack of attention and years of neglect that have left sections of the beachside looking like a Third-world shithole.

Fortunately, most signs are positive, and for the first time in a long time, city officials are listening to the complaints and suggestions of residents and civic organizations with a vested interest in revitalization.

In my experience, when you have a situation where there is open political and administrative support for fair but aggressive code compliance efforts – good things can happen.

The ultimate key to success is a consistent process – one where the rules and regulations are equally applied to everyone without favor or bias – focusing on improving safety and ensuring compliance over punitive fines and foreclosures.

I believe hope and redevelopment can be just as contagious as blight and dilapidation.

With luck, the fledgling efforts of the City of Daytona Beach to clean up the beachside will spread to other challenged areas and foster the restoration and economic resurgence of east Volusia County.

City officials working hard on these and other issues need our support.

Frankly, it’s now – or never.

 

Photo Credit: The Daytona Beach News-Journal

 

 

 

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