DeKalb may use DA to tighten code enforcement

What’s next

The DeKalb County Commission meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Maloof Auditorium, 1300 Commerce Drive in Decatur. The ordinance to assign traffic and code cases to the district attorney’s office is on the agenda.

DeKalb County could soon put some new legal juice behind its ongoing battle to boost code enforcement.

As early as Tuesday, the County Commission could grant the district attorney’s office the ability to prosecute code violators.

A state law adopted last year allows the designation, which likely means the larger and more complex cases would move from Recorders Court to Superior Court.

While setting DeKalb apart from Cobb and Gwinnett counties — whose solicitors handle code violations — the change also would put those cases before judges who can force demolitions or issue other orders to get properties cleaned up. Recorders Court judges don’t have that power.

“We have several properties with a number of code violations and several thousand dollars of fines and fees that are just languishing,” said Nicole Marchand Golden, the chief assistant district attorney. “We want to help that process along, so residents see results.”

DeKalb has long struggled with code enforcement. Complaints, already common countywide, have only increased during the economic downturn as many owners either didn’t have the money or the will to keep up their properties.

Code violations account for only about 40,000 of the 240,000 cases DeKalb Recorders Court handles every year. Yet officials say those code problems can create the environment to breed crime.

The East Lake Terrace community in central DeKalb, for instance, is already home to a pilot program to emphasize prosecutions for drug and prostitution crimes that pop up in neighborhoods with high foreclosures or code problems.

While Golden said the new powers for the DA’s office will help that effort, some residents are skeptical of the county’s focus.

Chuck DeRosier has lived in East Lake Terrace for nearly three years and keeps a database of problem properties in the 950-home community. Despite repeated complaints, few properties have been brought up to code, he said.

DeRosier said he would rather see more money and effort put into upgrading the code enforcement office and hiring more officers, who can be overwhelmed by the sheer number and types of violations. There are 24 officers for a county of 700,000 residents and more than 200,000 homes.

“It sort of makes me skeptical that the DA can do much until code enforcement gets its act together,” he said. “I don’t want to completely dismiss it, but I just don’t believe it.”

DeKalb has made a dent in code problems, though, with an administrative fix last year that has made it easier to make cases stick.

By allowing code officers to post violations on a property or send a mailed notice, instead of requiring a personal notification and signature, more cases are landing in court, Chief Recorders Court Judge Nelly Withers said.

The change has increased judges’ caseloads but also resulted in more cases being resolved.

“It’s all part of our long-term effort to normalize the court,” Withers said. “We are becoming more efficient.”

Those efforts have not gone unnoticed by residents who have pushed for changes to improve code enforcement. Charles Peagler, a member of the citizen task force that studied the issue, said last year he didn’t think the administrative changes would have an impact.

Now, the president of the Kings Ridge Homeowners Association said he has seen a change he didn’t expect. That’s why, even though he at first said he was skeptical of the latest effort, he said he is willing to give cautious support.

“If the chief judge thinks it’s a good idea, I would not knock it,” Peagler said. “It’s certainly better than what it was. Any improvement is welcome.”