After mayor Andre Sayegh’s administration made staffing changes, the Community Improvement Division, tasked with enforcing property maintenance and housing violations, saw a 54-percent drop in inspection activities, according to municipal documents.
Inspectors conducted 421 inspections in Dec. 2019, a drastic 54-percent reduction from 913 in Dec. 2018, according to Community Improvement Division data released last week.
“The system changed in December,” said economic development director Michael Powell. He pointed out some inspectors were moved from Community Improvement to the Planning and Zoning Division.
Municipal records show 13 active inspectors in Dec. 2018. It dropped to 11 in Dec. 2019. In Dec. 2019, Powell shifted 5 of the 11 inspectors to Zoning and Planning. Under the staffing changes, the Sayegh administration segregated enforcement responsibilities: those remaining in Community Improvement were to enforce property maintenance and housing violations while those moved to Planning and Zoning handled zoning violations. Previously, Community Improvement inspectors handled enforcement actions for both zoning and housing violations.
Powell provided hand-written inspection data for 5 inspector who were shifted. His data added to the total tally by including the inspection numbers for the 5 moved inspectors. His data showed 637 inspections in Dec. 2019, down 30-percent from 913 in Dec. 2018.
Powell also provided data for Jan. 2020. 13 active inspectors conducted 717 inspections in Jan. 2020, down 43-percent from 1,257 inspections in Jan. 2019. Records show there were 13 active inspectors in Jan. 2019.
David Gilmore, director of the Community Improvement Division, declined to comment for this story.
“That’s more than a decline. That feels like an attempt to make sure only certain items are being looked at,” said councilman Michael Jackson, a member of the economic development committee.
Jackson had been questioning the administration’s move to defang the Community Improvement Division which has conducted aggressive investigations, including citing some council members, over the past four years.
“What you are saying is you’re not interested in generating revenue from people doing bad things. Also, you’re not interested in correcting people’s wrongdoings. That speaks to the condition the city is in — it’s dirty, there’s a huge sense of lawlessness,” said Jackson. “People just believe they can do whatever they want to do. It is so bad people are coming into Paterson to dump on it. There’s no price to pay.”
Powell said inspectors were shifted and their duties delineated to boost efficiency. However, Powell’s subordinates, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the changes have complicated enforcement.
For example, previously, a Community Improvement inspector, who observed an illegal attic while conducting an inspection for something else, could issue violations. Under Powell’s new regime, the inspector has to make a referral to the inspectors at Planning and Zoning to issue the violation for the attic. In another example, a Community Improvement inspector, who observes trash and construction debris at a site can issue a ticket for the trash, but has to make a referral to the Planning and Zoning inspectors to write the violation for the construction debris.
Officials said the changes added red tape and badly reduced enforcement activities in the city. Powell did not have a precise explanation for why the changes were needed in separate 13-minute interviews.
Powell also talked about better data keeping in the department. His department could not provide data for zoning enforcement activities when the Paterson Times requested tallies through a records request. Only data provided were two years’ worth of reports kept by Gilmore and his division.
Powell’s changes eerily resembles a vision outlined by controversial construction official Gennaro “Jerry” Lobozzo. When he testified in court against the city, he argued some inspectors did not have the authority to issue certain types of tickets despite overlapping ordinances that granted them the authority to do so.
Lobozzo and Gilmore have been involved in a long-running dispute in the Economic Development Department. Powell, who is new to municipal government, appears to have stepped into the long-festering fight between Gilmore and Lobozzo. Former mayor Jose “Joey” Torres had deftly refused to take sides in the dispute by changing the reporting structure in Community Improvement. Lobozzo occupies a subordinate position to Gilmore. Instead of reporting to Gilmore, Lobozzo was allowed to report to the economic development director.
Lobozzo filed a claim notice threatening to sue Paterson last summer.