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Inspector general cites lag time between code violations and citations

Out of 101,729 code violations issued in 2016 and 2017, nearly 90 percent were sent to property owners at least six months after the alleged violation — and one-fourth of the violation notices took more than a year to issue.

Garbage in a yard.
The city takes too long to follow up on reports of code violations, like excessive trash, a new audit has found.
Sun-Times Media

Chicago is blindsiding homeowners and businesses, wasting valuable resources and losing sorely-needed revenue by allowing too much time to pass between the time a sanitation code violation is committed and citations are issued.

That’s the bottom line of Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s latest audit, which points the finger squarely at the city’s Law Department.

The audit concluded a whopping 87 percent of the 101,729 code violations issued in 2016 and 2017 were sent to property owners at least six months after the alleged violation was committed.

Nearly 24 percent of those violation notices took “more than a year” to issue. Fewer than 2 percent of the citations were sent within a month of the violation.

Violations include everything from overflowing garbage dumpsters to uncut weeds and overgrown vacant lots.

City Inspector General Joe Ferguson.
City Inspector General Joe Ferguson.
Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times file

Ferguson acknowledged the Law Department “prioritizes accuracy of ownership verification and the strength of cases against alleged violators over the speed of notification.”

But he argued that the Department of Streets and Sanitation, whose inspectors issued the violations, has acknowledged quicker notifications would help to “promptly correct the problem” that triggered a violation.

“These delays increase the burden on Streets and Sanitation and waste taxpayer money, mowing lots multiple times — at additional taxpayer expense and diversion of department resources needed to attend to other responsibilities — before a property owner even receives the first ticket,” Ferguson was quoted as saying in a press release.

“While the Department of Law has worked recently to reduce delays, it fails to acknowledge that there remains substantial room for improvement. Or that it is even reasonable to set a goal for how soon tickets should be sent after a violation is observed, such as the 60-day goal suggested last year by aldermen who often bear the brunt of complaints of procedural unfairness from constituents, and which data from other municipalities suggests is achievable.”

Overflowing dumpsters.
A system routinely taking “many months, let alone over a year, to send a citation for overflowing garbage containers or overgrown weeds” is inexcusable and cries out for “a hard reset,” said Joe Ferguson, the city’s inspector general.
Sun-Times Media

Ferguson urged the Departments of Law and Streets and Sanitation to work together to “set targets for a maximum number of days” between violation and notification.

To ease the backlog and address “untouched and incoming violations,” the inspector general suggested hiring “temporary or seasonal staff” and a management system of “performance monitoring.”

According to Ferguson, the Law Department disagreed with those remedies and “disputed the notion that a fixed time period between violation and notice … is reasonable, appropriate or even operationally feasible” because there are “too many variables beyond the department’s control.”

Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey portrayed Wednesday’s audit as old hat. It pinpoints an issue raised “several years ago” and already resolved, he said.

“As our response clearly indicates, the Department of Law volunteered to address a flawed system in 2008 and has handled the prosecution of these violations admirably, even when factors outside its control impacted its workflow,” McCaffrey was quoted as saying in a statement.

“The backlog in 2016 and 2017 was unfortunate, but was addressed quickly through a combination of a revised staffing model and technological enhancements, rendering this audit unnecessary.”