DeKalb promises improvements after critical code enforcement audit

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Diane Parks couldn’t help but smile as an excavator tore through the house — the siding, the windows, the doors, the walls.

Once just another pleasant, two-story home down the street, the house at 1276 Muirfield Lane caught fire in 2017. Then it sat there, a burnt out husk, for years.

“I had to pass it coming out of the subdivision, and pass it going back into the subdivision,” said Parks, the neighborhood’s HOA president. “It was to the point where it was kind of embarrassing. I didn’t even want people to come visit me.”

Now it’s gone: the 572nd derelict property razed or otherwise abated since CEO Michael Thurmond took office.

Blight reduction, which falls under the county’s code compliance office, is one of the things that DeKalb does well, Thurmond said.

But a recent audit of the department found systemic problems with other aspects of its operations — including poor oversight of employees, cases remaining open for years and a case management system plagued with technical deficiencies and inconsistent documentation.

In mid-March, DeKalb’s Office of the Independent Internal Auditor released the findings of its most recent probe into what the county calls its “code compliance administration.”

It looked into complaints and service requests filed with code compliance between Jan. 2019 and March 2020. The results were not flattering.

The audit found that about 20% of code compliance cases opened during the audit period remained listed as such, and about one-quarter of those had been open for more than four years.

The probe also looked into inspections conducted by code compliance and found that, among the sample group, nearly two-thirds had not been conducted within 72 hours, as required.

Other wide-ranging issues reported in the audit were also documented in a probe from 2017, but were never addressed. Those include little to no existing standard operating procedures, shoddy paperwork, inconsistent documentation, and “limited” public transparency.

Joel Edwards is a leader of the community advocacy group Restore DeKalb and has been tracking code enforcement issues in the county for two decades.

He said that experience left him unsurprised by the new findings.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in DeKalb County,” Edwards said.

Not a top priority

As it turns out, the administration agrees.

County officials formally concurred with the audit’s findings, saying in a response letter that the government is “committed to continue to implement the required systems and processes to address them.”

Thurmond said that, among other things, a new technology system to better internally manage code cases would be launched by the first quarter of 2023. The existing system was never created with code compliance in mind and is not integrated with the court system’s software, Thurmond said.

An updated website will also include a new citizen portal.

Thurmond admitted issues raised in years-old audits haven’t been addressed. He said that systemic problems in code compliance are important but he’s made other long-standing county issues like water billing and a historically neglected sewer system more of a priority.

And all three dilemmas, he said, have roots in previous administrations.

In his letter responding to the audit, DeKalb County COO Zachary Williams wrote that Thurmond inherited a code compliance administration “plagued by mismanagement, dysfunction, low morale, unethical behavior and lack of public trust” when he took office in 2017.

Code compliance was restructured or moved from department to department several times between 2011 and 2016. One leader, Marcus Kellum, left shortly thereafter, accused of double-dipping on travel reimbursements and running a private consulting business on county time.

While agreeing with auditors’ larger findings, the administration did balk at what it called a “fundamental misunderstanding” of code compliance’s role.

Referencing data showing cases were often unresolved for long periods of time, Williams wrote that code officers are responsible for responding to complaints and writing citations. They have no control, he said, over when and how prosecutors and the court system address them.

DeKalb officials also said this week they’ve done plenty of work that fell outside the scope of the independent internal auditor’s probe.

Those initiatives include increasing staffing and ramping up hotel-motel compliance sweeps and inspections in commercial corridors. Thurmond said he plans to launch a countywide anti-littering campaign in coming months.

Tackling blighted properties like the one demolished Friday near Stone Mountain have also been a priority.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“There are people who sometimes can’t see the progress, can’t see the work getting done,” Thurmond said.

Edwards, the community activist, said he’d give Thurmond credit for some of his efforts. But he’s not especially hopeful bigger picture fixes will ever transpire in code compliance.

“It hasn’t been addressed in six years” since Thurmond took office, Edwards said. “So why should I believe it will be addressed now?”