Monday, December 13, 2010

Brockton Blight Is Target Not Cape Verdeans Says Code Enforcement Officer

By Lisa E. Crowley
The BrocktonPost
BROCKTON—The release of a report by City Councilor-at-large Jass Stewart and a working group formed to help solve city problems that claims code enforcement activities have unfairly targeted and harassed Cape Verdean auto sales and repair shops has come under much criticism from code enforcement officials who say eyesores, trash and junk heaps and illegal operations are the target and not race.
“It’s about blight—not people,” said Officer Scott D. Uhlman, a Brockton police officer who along with a team of inspectors in other city departments is responsible for ensuring city ordinances and permit restrictions are met.
“It’s not about race. It’s not what he thinks. He’s sticking his neck out for people who are violating the law and thumbing their noses at the city,” Uhlman said.
Uhlman, a 29-year-veteran of the department, said over the last year to 18 months the code enforcement department has been much more aggressive in cracking down on businesses who maybe violating city codes and ordinances or the restrictions of their licenses.
“If I go to an auto sales lot and they have 50 cars and they’re only supposed to have 10—that’s not about who’s black, white, purple or green, it’s about violating the law,” Uhlman said.
Uhlman said he is shocked at the report’s claim that he or other enforcement officials are unduly harassing or targeting Cape Verdean businesses and could be based on a personal animosity stemming from an incident several months ago when Uhlman was prohibited from posting code enforcement updates on Internet issues forum
“Yes, I think it’s personal,” Uhlman said.
Uhlman said he has lists of examples of code violations and enforcement actions against non-Cape Verdean car dealers and repair shops who continually agree to meet regulations and then don’t, including a dealership at 159 North Main St. that had a license for four cars and was found in May 2009 to have 130. The owner was given until December to remove the cars and when he didn’t comply, the 91 vehicles still remaining on the lot were towed.
“It’s about blight—not people,” Uhlman said. “People want this city cleaned up,” he said.
Stewart, the city’s first black and gay city councilor, said the report is not a personal attack, but a list of recommendations to address a perception among some Cape Verdean businesses that they are being targeted by code enforcement.
“We necessarily don’t believe the Cape Verdean community is being targeted because of race,” Stewart said. “The report doesn’t say they are being harassed or targeted because they are Cape Verdean, the report says the Cape Verdean community feels like it is being harassed. There is a difference between feeling harassed and being harassed,” he said.
The city’s code enforcement activities have increased during the last two years and inspectors from the fire department, health department, electrical, and others have cracked down on violators, not only car dealerships selling more vehicles than the license allows, storing excess vehicles on others’ property and sidewalks or expanding business into repairs and body work without a license, but also illegal apartments, squatters living in foreclosed houses, illegal rubbish dumping and excessive trash, debris and other junk littering yards and businesses.
Uhlman said the increased enforcement—and complaints--coincides with his position moving from a part-time position he has held for about seven years to a full-time job over the last two.
Last week Stewart released the first report from the unofficial working groups he and City Councilor-at-large Thomas Brophy formed to identify problems and make recommendations for improving issues in the city including jobs, education, safety and neighborhoods.
Stewart said the City Council in April opted not to make the working groups project an official committee of the council because members felt the work would be redundant to task forces initiated by Mayor Linda Balzotti.
Balzotti’s task forces released its reports and recommendations in April and are available on the city’s website.
Stewart said people who heard about his working groups volunteered and were divided into five separate groups.
The first report released last week and titled, “New Strategies for Better Code Enforcement with Cape Verdean Auto Sales/Repair Businesses,” was developed by members of the neighborhood/ordinance working group.
None of the documentation within the report cites where the allegations of race bias actually comes from except reports and observations.
The report concedes there is a “chronic problem where the Cape Verdean auto businesses are not following city ordinances and are adding blight to local neighborhoods” and that the city’s code enforcement officials are aggressively pursuing those individuals.
The reports continues, “However, Cape Verdean businesses report feeling harassed, ‘targeted,’ and treated unfairly based on race—citing examples of white businesses that operate with impunity.”
Stewart said issues of harassment came to his attention in January or February, long before the working groups were formed.
He said he and a member of Mayor Balzotti’s staff were led on a tour by a Cape Verdean businessman and visited seven or eight Cape Verdean auto sale and repair businesses who had received code and license violations while neighboring businesses operated by people who are white were doing the same thing and didn’t receive violations.
Stewart said when he formed the working groups months later he told the volunteers in the neighborhood/ordinance working group--which he led--about the tour and the Cape Verdeans’ feelings of harassment.
“The group decided that if there was a real problem about race then why not take it on,” Stewart said.
Stewart said after the tour of the Cape Verdean businesses in January, he later investigated and learned the white businesses that were pointed out during the tour were not violating their licenses and the Cape Verdean businesses didn’t understand that each license holder had different regulations and requirements stipulated by the license and approved by the License Commission.
However, there is nothing in the report about Stewart’s January tour or his follow up findings or how the working group concluded race was a problem.
The report lists three recommendations, including developing a handbook or manual of regulations and a checklist of needed permits at the state, local and federal level for individuals or businesses seeking to open auto sales or repair shops in Brockton.
The handbook, the report states, would be part of a new “9-step” code enforcement system based on a similar model adopted by other cities facing similar cultural code enforcement problems.
Another recommendation would require any person or company who seeks auto or auto repair licenses should be required to submit a business plan—a move Stewart said he believes would help eliminate some of the problems and confusion associated with code enforcement because many auto businesses may not realize financially they can’t make it with the current license and take on more vehicles or repair work to make more money.
It also recommends code enforcement officials within the police, fire, electric, health, plumbing and other inspectors should receive more training on communications and complicated cultural differences.
“We didn’t say these were the best recommendations and maybe we need to do some more work, but it was a way to start the conversation,” Stewart said.
Uhlman said he believes it is a conversation that is based on violators complaining they got caught breaking the rules and seeking some way to get out of the violations process—which can be costly and time consuming-- rather than race.
He said he is not the only code enforcement officer and all the other inspectors in the other city departments work as a team on situations and meet once or twice a month to discuss problems.
Uhlman said most auto ordinance violators get a warning ticket that allows 72 hours for compliance.
Uhlman said often there is cooperation, but when there isn’t he goes back to check and if the violation hasn’t been fixed a process begins that could result in fines, license revocations, and in a lot of less publicized instances—compliance.
“If you’re in compliance, you’re never going to see me,” Uhlman said.
Uhlman said Stewart may be looking to solve problems or reinvent the code enforcement wheel, but in the meantime violators are causing dangerous situations, fire hazards and blights on neighborhoods.
One noted instance was the violation warning and subsequent enforcement notices and hearings involving CV Auto, 703 North Main Street, owned and operated by Marcelino Montrond that began in June when Uhlman said he stopped at the business because he saw two men working under the hood of a car.
According to License Commission minutes from an October 21 hearing, CV Auto Sales was charged with numerous code violations including performing auto repairs without a license, an illegal apartment on the second floor and the cars that were on the lot were not listed in the Used Vehicle Record on the premises—not only a code violation, by a violation of state law and a major concern in law enforcement regarding fraud and stolen vehicles.
Uhlman said when he initially approached Montrond about not having a license to perform repairs, Montrond began screaming and yelling, told Ulhman he was targeting Montrond because he’s Cape Verdean and ordered Uhlman off the property.
“He was foaming at the mouth,” Uhlman said.
Uhlman said he called in police and other inspectors and Montrond eventually faced six charges of code and license violations. Montrond was also visited by police twice during the year and faces several counts of assault and battery for an alleged beating on the property.
Minutes from the October hearing show Stewart attended the hearing and while initially supporting Montrond and downplaying some of the violations noted during the four months leading to the hearing, Montrond had agreed to numerous changes and did not live up to his agreements.
Montrond’s license to operate has since been revoked by the License Commission.
Stewart said there are many instances of violators like Montrond who push the edge of enforcement attempts, but there are others with lesser violations and of higher character who feel they are being unduly harassed.
“If people are screaming at each other something’s wrong,” Stewart said.
One confusing portion of Stewart’s report is a 43-page attachment outlining “Respectful Entry,” that mainly deals with mental health issues.
Stewart said the group probably should have pulled out the relevant portions of the attachment—a report by a University of South Florida professor—instead of attaching the whole report.
Stewart said the group’s inclusion of “Respectful Entry,” had to do with a person in power’s mannerisms, attitudes and tone of voice when approaching or talking with someone they may hold power over, such as a city councilor or a code enforcement officer.
Uhlman said he disagrees he or any of the other code enforcement officers need more “sensitivity training” since they have been through numerous sessions, and that license holders, no matter what color or nationality must meet code restrictions or ask the License Commission or City Council for changes.
Uhlman said he is a police officer and often must use an “authoritative voice” and is known for telling things like they are, but has never been racist or unprofessional when handling violations.
Uhlman said he was also unhappy Stewart added his name to the report as a contributor because Uhlman said he was not a part of the working group and never attended any of the meetings.
Stewart said he included Uhlman’s name because Uhlman did not respond to an email about the draft report asking for any additions or changes.
Uhlman said he did not respond to the email because he had never been a part of the group.
Uhlman’s name was deleted from the report, Stewart said when he learned Uhlman was upset about it.
(Photos above courtesy Brockton Police and show various violations of licenses that have been enforced. The orange ticket is the "courtesy tag" alleged violators receive that gives 72 hours to come into compliance or face further consequences)

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