Despite complaints, code enforcers stay busy

Published 4:47 am Saturday, April 23, 2016

Although lax code enforcement is a common complaint at city hall meetings, Rodney McGehee, the senior code enforcer for the city, believes he is enforcing the codes about as well as they can be enforced.

McGehee said he suspects a number of the complaints are directed at homes that have already been condemned. These buildings are often public hazards, but legally, he said, they have to be torn down.

“We don’t handle condemned properties,” he said. “These falling-down properties that are adjudicated and have overgrown lots where people are deceased, I don’t deal with those either.

“I deal with live bodies, like police officers that pull you over for running a stop sign. He’s got a live body there, like I do.”

Nevertheless, code enforcement is a near-monthly gripe at city meetings. In addition, at the first town hall, in March, lax code enforcement was identified as one of the biggest problems facing the city.

But McGehee said these complaints ignore reality.

McGehee has been the city’s code enforcer for 15 years. Last year the city hired a second officer, but for years he’s been the only officer patrolling all the real estate within a 10.5 square mile radius. In that time, McGehee said he’s been threatened with violence, he’s written numerous tickets and he’s done what he can get churches and other community groups to help clean up properties owned by the elderly, the indigent or the infirm.

“I run into some very difficult characters and they act like they want to get violent,” he said. “So I have to call for back up and the police department comes and they have to deal with the person and calm them down.”

McGehee is himself a sworn officer, which allows him to write tickets. McGehee said the tickets are what frequently bring the violence.

“I have had a lot of police officers tell me, ‘Man, I wouldn’t have your job,’” he said.

Until McGehee got the extra help, he said he didn’t even have an office to himself in Bogalusa City Hall, and when he started, nobody had ever heard of a code officer before. In his decade and a half, McGehee said he’s tried to improve Bogalusa.

“When I came to work here 15 years ago code enforcement was more or less a titular position,” he said. “I didn’t know a lot about it and nobody took it seriously. So I took it upon myself to organize it and build it up.”

He said he started at “burger flipping wages, but I built it up. We had to get more codes passed and we had to get them passed into criminal codes because they were civil codes … And in the beginning, when I would go out and introduce myself and say ‘I’m a code officer,’ people would say, ‘What’s a code officer?’ Well, that doesn’t happen anymore. People know who I am now.”

McGehee and Kelley Sharpe, the newest code enforcement officer, said they’re frustrated when their small department gets blamed for blight and code violations. McGehee pointed out that even if he’s found a violation, it may take the better part of a year to get fixed up — and that’s if the case progresses as it should.

“For each case, by law, we have to notify whoever is the owner of the property is, and we have to give them a certain amount of time to reply,” he said. “And we notify them by certified mail. It can only go as fast as it can go by law. We work hard every day, but we can only work as fast as we can.”

McGehee said that since January, his department has mailed out 268 certified letters. However, once a homeowner gets a letter, he or she can still contest it in court. This is true even if McGehee finds the owner at home and writes a ticket on the spot — the problem may still linger for months as the case winds its way through the court system.

“Once I issue them a summons, it’s in the court system,” he said. “I can’t go hold a gun to their head and force them to clean up. But if someone pleads not guilty six weeks before the court date, you’re looking at another six weeks before the trial. And if they go to trial, and they’re found guilty, then the judge will give them a certain time after the court date, so if someone wants to fight me, you’re talking several months of fighting before it gets done.”

“We don’t want to act like we’re bragging, but people don’t realize how busy we are every day,” Sharpe said.

The other issue is, McGehee has to work with numerous homeowners who are too poor to afford to keep up certain properties the way they should, or they’re too old. He doesn’t want to ticket these people, so he tries to get them into compliance through other methods.

“I hate to take someone who’s on a walker in front of a judge and say, ‘This person hasn’t cleaned up their property,’” McGehee said. “Well, they’re on a walker.”

So, he tries to work with neighborhood churches to find volunteers to mow lawns and repair properties. He tries any way he can help beautify Bogalusa and enforce the codes while being fair.

“So yeah by hook or by crook,” he said. “Any way I can get it done. The gold standard is any way I can get the property cleaned up. Sending certified letters is one tool. Writing tickets is one tool. The goal is to get the property cleaned up and move on to the next one.”