|Contra Costa Times Cities
Downturn in Blight Enforcement by City Attorney
March 22, 2005
Posted on Mon, Mar. 21, 2005
RICHMOND - Lauded six months ago for fighting blight and closing drug houses, the City Attorney's Office now takes far fewer landowners to task for failing to clean their properties, claims a growing chorus of critics.
While speakers at recent public meetings hammered acting City Attorney Everett Jenkins on the topic, documents obtained by the Times suggest that workers enforcing city anti-blight laws also are seeing a slowdown because of a change in attorneys.
A contract attorney hired to help with code enforcement has many other duties, Jenkins said last week. He said he did not know how many blight cases his office had resolved this year.
None, said a police officer who supervised the city's code enforcement unit before his retirement Wednesday.
"It's changed dramatically. Some of these people laugh in our faces now when we tell them they need to clean it up," said former Richmond police Officer Dick Tak. "Everything's come to a grinding halt. It's become like, 'what the hell are we doing here?'"
In a March 2 memo to acting police Chief Terry Hudson, Tak said contract attorney Trisha Aljoe was not seeking court enforcement of cleanup orders. He traces the change to a City Attorney's Office squabble that pushed out assistant attorney Adriana Quintero last fall.
Quintero took a leave from work in November for an unspecified medical problem. In February she filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming Jenkins stripped her of job responsibilities after she testified in an employee's discrimination case last fall.
Just a few weeks before Quintero's departure, City Council members and police officials praised her aggressiveness in taking landlords of drug houses to court, often compelling them to evict problem tenants and to board up their properties for as long as one year. The city shuttered about two dozen such houses last year. Jenkins said he did not know precisely how many.
Days after Quintero filed an internal grievance against Jenkins, he hired Aljoe as an contract attorney. He said she would help with Quintero's caseload and handle other city matters, specifically the Port of Richmond.
Aljoe began working in October, before the council OK'd her $50,000 contract.
"If there was ever a hostile work environment, it's in your office," police commissioner Bob Sutcliffe told Jenkins at a council meeting last week. "(Quintero) has done an exceptional job."
On a 5-4 vote, the council rejected Jenkins' request to extend Aljoe's contract. Nat Bates, Richard Griffin, Jim Rogers and Mayor Irma Anderson dissented.
Jenkins said afterward he had sought the contract extension because of staffing vacancies and that the council may reconsider.
Jenkins said Aljoe does not work full time for Richmond. She works for several cities and charges an hourly rate. He said he did not know how many hours she has worked for Richmond but said "we've been keeping her pretty busy."
"She is an expert on municipal law," Jenkins said. In addition to the port, code enforcement and abatement, she handles legal requests for information about police officers and a sewer-line lawsuit.
He said he did not know how many city code enforcement cases Aljoe had handled or their outcomes.
Aljoe, reached by phone Friday, said she was too busy to answer questions and did not return calls later.
Quintero, reached at home this week, would not discuss Jenkins, her federal complaint, her internal grievance or Aljoe.
"I would be very interested in going back to work, cleaning up the city," Quintero said. "The people who live there deserve an aggressive attorney who is not afraid to go to court."
Tak, who supervised code enforcement for the police department, talked about Aljoe in a March 2 memo to Hudson.
"(We) are disturbed with the lack of action taken by Ms. Aljoe in dealing with drug homes, private property abatement and building code violations," he wrote.
The memo outlines a laborious and unresolved attempt to document conditions at one nuisance property and to formally demand a cleanup.
According to the memo, the City Attorney's Office instructed code enforcement to repeatedly inspect and send warning letters to the landlord since December, rather than take legal action when the landlord did not meet city deadlines.
"Ms. Aljoe informs Code Enforcement she has no intention of involving the City of Richmond (in) cleaning a similar property" in another part of town, Tak wrote. "Ms. Aljoe has made it perfectly clear she cannot handle or does not wish to handle more than one complaint for property abatement."
Tak told the Times he stood behind what he wrote. He said the case he referred to remains unresolved, and it was the only case involving a blighted property that Aljoe had accepted since Quintero left work at the end of December.
A different department source said two suspected drug houses had been boarded up so far this year but did not know whether that resulted from court action or out-of-court negotiations.
Quintero had worked with the department's vice unit to build civil cases against the landlords of suspected drug houses.
Hudson said Friday he had met with Jenkins and Aljoe after receiving Tak's complaint. He said he expects improvement and that differences in "style" between Aljoe and Quintero caused misunderstanding.
"She saw some (legal) issues differently than Ms. Quintero, and because there was a more cohesive relationship with Ms. Quintero than there is currently with Ms. Aljoe, there was a snag," Hudson said.
"But my understanding is that, since our meeting, that has been resolved."