Many bylaw cases avoidable

“There’s always something.”
The phrase has become a mantra for Jessica Harknett as she drives Car 115 slowly through the residential streets of Abbotsford.

Jessica Harknett prepares to get on the road

Jessica Harknett prepares to get on the road

“There’s always something.”

The phrase has become a mantra for Jessica Harknett as she drives Car 115 slowly through the residential streets of Abbotsford.

While others may look out the window and see kids playing and houses pass by, Harknett has a different view of her surroundings.

“Hydrant,” she says, pulling over and grabbing her metal clipboard.

Indeed, there is a fire hydrant, with a car parked far too close to it.

“Excuse me,” she says, hailing a gentleman working on his lawn. “Is that your car?”

It’s his daughter’s.

“Can you move it?”

Taking note of her blue uniform, the man complies and Harknett drives off.

“We are considered the bad guys because we give out tickets. But usually it’s about safety concerns,” she says.

This time, a verbal warning sufficed. Next time, it may be different. The public can be confrontational.

Harknett is a bylaw enforcement officer with the City of Abbotsford – one of six charged with enforcing city regulations and ensuring that 135,000 citizens comply.

She’s been working as a bylaw enforcement officer since 2005, but her career with the city dates back to 1999 when she started in the parks and recreation department. In 2002, she applied for a clerk’s job in bylaw enforcement before being promoted to officer status three years later.

In the past six years, she has handled more than 2,000 files, and on average has 50 to 60 open cases.

On this day, the afternoon is relatively quiet. There are eight complaints to investigate, plus general surveillance.

The first task is a quick drive by an abandoned house. The city has ordered it to be demolished and Harknett needs to know if it’s still boarded up or already torn down.

The house appears to be secured, but the file will remain open until it comes down.

She’ll have to keep checking.

Stop two is a new file – a long grass complaint. It doesn’t take long to confirm the complaint is justified. The grass and the dandelions are over 10 inches high – not a good look for a residential neighbourhood.

As with most complaints, there’s a simple reason. Harknett discovers the owners are away and the children are being watched by their grandfather. She talks briefly with the man and by the time she drives away, one of the kids is already pushing a lawn mower towards the yard.

“Neighbours just don’t talk to each other anymore,” she says, adding the issue could have been resolved without contacting the bylaw department.

“That was an easy one.”

It’s not always so. Knocking on a strange door can always be a risk, and Harknett has little to protect herself.

She has a cellphone, a radio to contact the police, a clipboard, camera and not much else.

The clipboard comes in handy.

“I was told to hold it out in front of me if a dog comes at me.”

But there is a more effective tool for dealing with people.

“Our communication skills are our greatest asset.”

Her job is to both enforce the bylaws and keep people’s tempers in check.

“There’s a lot of verbal abuse – you have to have a tough skin … it’s got nothing to do with me, they don’t even know me. I just let people vent.”

But there are occasions when verbal skills aren’t enough.

She recalls one incident when she and a fellow bylaw officer visited a home.

“As soon as the door opened, a man charged out and shoved me and then tried to hit the other officer … you never know what’s going to happen.”

Once he realized they weren’t police officers, he calmed down and went inside. The police, however, arrived shortly after.

It’s just one of the risks of her job – something she and her husband Rick have learned to deal with.

“I wouldn’t say he’s overly worried about it, but I’m sure he’d like me to do something else.”

She credits her intuition for saving her on more than one occasion.

“Sometimes you walk up to a door and you just know that it doesn’t feel right.”

In those cases she will return with either another officer, or the police.

Files three and four on this day are both in an agricultural area – pickers’ cabins that had to be vacated.

The people living in the structures were not farm employees. Both cabins are clear and two files are closed.

On the way to her fifth case of the afternoon, Harknett suddenly stops the car in the middle of the quiet road.

“You see that?” she says, grabbing her camera.

A power line hangs unusually from a hydro pole, down to the street and into a nearby house.

“There’s always something,” she says, snapping pictures. She’ll send them to BC Hydro and the police when she gets back to the office.

Next stop, a trash complaint, which has been cleaned up. File closed. Then it’s off to two more unsightly premise complaints. Neither occupant is home, so she leaves a card and a warning to clean up.

The final case of the day is a little different. Harknett has to count cows.

“That’s a new one for me.”

A homeowner has applied to the city for permission to have a second dwelling on the property, to house a farm worker. The planning department has asked Harknett to drive by and make sure the property qualifies as a working farm. According to the report, there should be 44 head of cattle on the land.

After a quick count, Harknett is satisfied.

As she drives, Harknett is constantly scanning.

“I always look for unlicensed vehicles, fire hydrants, anything that could be a safety concern.”

She drives past a mink farm and chuckles.

“I’ve been there before.”

There was no bylaw infraction, but there was a story to tell.

She was with another officer and when they left the mink farm, she could see something crawling down the side of her partner’s face.

“We were infested with fleas.”

The car, the uniforms, and the two officers had to be fumigated.

“We carry flea spray now.”

At the end of the day, Harknett returns to city hall, parks Car 115 in its designated spot and heads to her office to do paperwork. Three files were closed that afternoon, but on her desk, new files are waiting.

There’s always something.

 

In his report to council earlier this year, Gordon Ferguson, the manager of bylaw enforcement, reported the following:

  • Abbotsford’s bylaw enforcement officers created 3,211 general investigation files and 533 Good Neighbour Project files in 2010.
  • 1,223 were nuisance complaints, including dumping trash, strange odours and  squatters. Other files include 519 parking violations, 458 zoning infractions and 95 noise complaints.
  • The 533 Good Neighbour Project files fell into four categories – 184 unsightly yards, 137 zoning violations, 130 parking violations and 82 garbage build up.
  • The Good Neighbour Project began in 2010 with a focus on cleaning up untidy yards. More than 3,700 files were created, but not every incident required ticketing.
  • Bylaw officers issued 1,703 parking tickets and 465 tickets for various other offences. An additional 658 parking tickets were issued in downtown Abbotsford through the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association’s ambassador.
  • Forty-seven safety inspections were performed in 2010, and 45 of the homes inspected were in violation (43 marijuana grow-ops and two meth labs) of the city’s Controlled Substance Property Bylaw.
  • Approximately $128,000 in ticket fines were collected in 2010, about 25 per cent of the total expenses. However, fees collected under the Controlled Substance Property Bylaw, which is separate from general ticketing, reached $250,000, plus $33,000 in fines. The cost of that program was $252,000.

Also, 15 nuisance properties (derelict homes) were torn down by the city in 2010.