JoCo fails to amend complaints policy

Siege Schatza – IVN copy editor

Anonymity and the need to protect the privacy of citizens proved to be a point of contention as the Josephine County Commissioners considered an amendment to the county’s policy for responding to complaints.
The discussion took place during the April 12 weekly business session, held at Grants Pass’ Anne G. Basker Auditorium.
The board order to change the Responding to Citizen Complaints policy to the Responding to Citizen Reports policy, and revise its contents, had already been tabled at two previous meetings due to the absence of either a commissioner or legal counsel.
JoCo Planning Director Mark Stevenson explained at the April 12 session, “Specifically the major change was going from two to three citizens for confidential reports.”
Stevenson was referencing the policy stipulation for when land use zoning and building safety violations can be investigated by the county, which reads as:
“Investigations into violations of Title 19 of the Josephine County Code (JCC) can be initiated only by a written citizen report, or by a written report from another county office or department, or from another governmental agency.”
Under the current policy, one citizen report can spur an investigation into code violations if the citizen signs their name to the report. However, it takes two citizen reports to warrant investigation if said reports are submitted anonymously. The revision would increase this to three confidential reports, and all of the reports would have to come from citizens living within a half mile radius of the property where the alleged violations occurred.
Stevenson went on, “One of the changes in this I wanted to point out was the community development director has discretion to accept only confidential reports that include allegations of criminal activity and discretion to initiate investigation based on one confidential report.”
The planning director also clarified that confidential reports are not guaranteed to stay anonymous, particularly if there is litigation involving the code violation allegations, or public records requests are made.
During requests and comments from citizens, former commissioner candidate Mark Jones expressed his concern that requiring all three anonymous complaints to be from within a half mile of the offending property might defeat the point of their confidential nature, as in some parts of rural JoCo, residents only have three or less neighbors in that radius, so the violator would know the identity of their accusers.
“It takes away their chance to be anonymous,” Jones concluded. He suggested leaving the number at two and making it a broader radius the confidential reports can be made from.
Commissioner Dan DeYoung agreed with Jones’ points during his response, saying, “I think that by going to three complaints on the same property for the same thing within a half a mile and these have to be people that live within a half a mile of the subject property is basically telling the people that are doing wrong that we’re not interested in pressing you and making you comply like everybody else has to comply and follow codes.”
DeYoung added he would not support the revision because he feels the current complaints process has worked well. “If it’s not broken, I don’t want to fix anything. I don’t want to make it weaker. If anything, I want to make it stronger.”
Commissioner John West felt the same way: “After thinking about it, I’m not sure we gain anything by going to three.”
Board Chair Herman Baertschiger, on the other hand, maintained his support for the order, saying he believes there can be “Hatfield & McCoy” situations that brew among neighbors, which can lead to complaints filed not because of actual violations, but because of bad blood. Raising the amount of confidential reports needed to initiate an investigation, Baertschiger reckoned, would weed out some of these bad blood motivated complaints so that code enforcement can focus on legitimate violators.
Baertschiger also said he was concerned the board was misleading the public by referring to “anonymous” reports because they are never truly anonymous. Citizens can make public records requests to find out who filed code violation complaints.
When the time came to vote, DeYoung and West voted no while Baertschiger voted yes, stopping the order in its tracks with a 2-1 failed motion.