CEDA officials respond to grand jury findings, promise improvements
on September 14, 2011
During a tense city council committee meeting on Tuesday, the deputy director of Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA) presented the agency’s response to a grand jury report on building inspection malpractice.
About 40 residents attended the meeting at which Building Services Division Deputy Director Ray Derania presented a response to the 2010-2011 Alameda County Civil Grand Jury report. According to the report released this June, the grand jury found that inspectors from CEDA’s Building Services Division had created “an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation toward property owners” by issuing excessive fees and sanctions for building code violations. Other problems cited by the grand jury include findings that the inspectors had rejected property owners’ requests for appeals and had not informed property owners about blight violations on time.
“The division’s practices and its treatment of property owners appear to be a direct reflection of poor management, lack of leadership, and ambiguous policies and procedures,” the grand jury concluded in the report.
A grand jury released a similar report in 1999, in which it urged CEDA to address a lack of due process and transparency in the Building Services Division.
During his presentation to the City Council Community and Economic Development Committee, Derania said his agency recognizes the concerns of the grand jury and property owners and has worked to improve its procedures. “CEDA agrees with the direction of enhancing policy, transparency and process clarity,” Derania said.
As he spoke, Derania presented a slideshow based on a report issued earlier this week by CEDA describing the actions the agency will take to comply with the grand jury’s recommendations. Derania said that in order to address the grand jury’s findings, the agency will implement improvements to Building Services Division procedures by developing staff accountability and feedback protocols and creating materials for costumer service.
The Building Services Division has also hired the consulting firm Management Partners “to evaluate best-practices and produce a procedures manual and revised forms,” according to the report.
“We need another set of eyes, recommending to us what to do, to see the bigger picture. This problem will not be fixed in-house,” said councilmember Patricia Kernighan after Derania’s presentation had ended.
During the following public comments session, about 10 people spoke before the councilmembers and CEDA Director Walter Cohen, many of them angrily complaining about the appeals process for blight citations and about liens placed against their properties.
“My case is not an isolated case,” said Andrew Vincent, a property owner who previously sued the city regarding a lien imposed by the Building Services Division. “It is the standard procedure of Building Services. The grand jury report barely scratches a surface of the abuses occurring at this place.”
Kernigan asked Cohen and councilmembers Nancy Nadel and Jane Brunner to make a report on all the cases presented during the meeting to assist individuals. “We need an analysis to see what things in the system went wrong,” she said.
Nadel said that although she recognizes problems with the Building Services Division’s procedures, the division still needs to address blight issues in Oakland. “We have a lot of blight. It’s a problem for the city. We need to prioritize, concentrate on the big cases and not small ones like excess weeds,” she said.
Some Oakland residents who attended the meeting were not satisfied by CEDA’s plans for improvement. “Their plan is too vague,” said resident Lucy Lequin who has worked on a renovation project for buildings on 7th Street in West Oakland. “They don’t listen to our opinions and our proposals. They don’t understand we are on the same team.”
“We need more outside people evaluating the situation,” said property owner Vincent. “I think the consultants will work on the cover up rather than solving the issue.”
According to the Oakland Tribune, Cohen will step down as CEDA director on October 28. The Oakland City Council will address the resident’s complaints and the Grand Jury recommendations at its next meeting on September 20.
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