Thursday, November 20, 2008

Freedom of Information and Public Records

And I thought I had it bad! For a real horror story, read this account of a long and costly wrangle to get public records from Jacksonville, Florida. As published in Folio Weekly on 10/07/2008, all reporter Marvin Edwards wanted was public records held by the city which documented millions of tax dollars channeled to developers and other "connected" individuals to build a sports stadium. Starting to sound familiar?

If you really want to scare the crap out of yourself, here's a fun exercise. All you have to do is make a few word substitutions while reading.

Wherever it says: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Substitute:

Jacksonville, Florida . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Manteca, California

Gator Bowl/Alltel Stadium . . . . . . . . . Big League Dreams Sports Complex

Florida developer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Local developer

Jaguar owners . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . BLD operations leaseholders

Super Bowl Host Committee . . . . . . . . Manteca Convention & Visitors Bureau

other Florida "insiders" . . . . . . . . . . . . other Manteca "insiders"

See what I mean? These things go on all over - not only in Jacksonville, Florida. The reason for my attraction to this article (and my dismay regarding it) is summed up in these two quotes:

Plaintiff: Although the law is pretty clear, ... "our laws in this country are not self-executing and too often it takes someone with fortitude, resources and connections to make the government do right." [emphasis added]

Plaintiff's view regarding Defendant: As [was] made abundantly clear, the Host Committee -- and its city lapdogs -- are perfectly willing to endure "months, if not years of litigation," in order to keep their secrets secret.


(Hey, waterboy! We need water over here!)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Can Whales Vomit?

Gotta love Manteca City Hall's technological progressiveness. Quoting the Chief of Police, "While we have initiated an on-line reporting system through the Department's web page that allows victims of an incident to create their own report, during the past year we have received only 486 of our 10,803 reports via the on-line system." That means 95.5% of reports are taken are on-scene, or on the telephone, or when someone sends a letter or shows up at City Hall in person.

Yeah, these are the same tech folks who have TWO systems - the internal one where drafts of proposed ordinances for City Council consideration are found, and the external web-based site which just has city propoganda and the above-mentioned "reporting solution" - and the two systems do not talk to each other.

Anyway, my recent attempts to file reports in the 4.5% group (on-line) resulted in brush-offs marked by brevity of words and devoid of actions. Here is code enforcement's anonymous response to the last request:

-----Original Message-----From: Manteca Help Line [] Sent: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 8:13 AMTo: Richard BehlingSubject: Manteca-CRM: Closed Request # 198750 [3437656466356137]

Dear Richard,

Your request # 198750 has been resolved with the resolution:

This is a duplicate request and the issue has been looked into.

Realizing that ALL of my requests directed to code enforcement will be deep-sixed, I returned to each of the three case closures and completed the satisfaction surveys, on the hope that someone else in system followup reads them.

Satisfaction Survey - Request #: 197457 [Abandoned structures/walk-in freezers]

I expect a code enforcement officer to actually know and apply Manteca's Municipal Code. To say, "I have been told by planning...", simply does not make the cut.

I believe a non-compliant situation still exists. The intent for which these codes are adopted is nullified when complaints are handled so sloppily.

Other than that, Why does the complainant have to be fully identified, while the respondent city employee hides behind the anonymity of a computerized system and does not sign the response?

Satisfaction Survey - Request #: 197462 [Abandoned vehicles]

The response does not appear to reference the relevant code sections and a non-compliant situation still exists.

Satisfaction Survey - Request #: 198750 [Abandoned vehicles]

This closed request was an expansion of an earlier request closed too hastily without appropriate action. The statement that "...the issue has been looked into" is a euphemism for "I made it LOOK like I did something." The non-compliant situation still exists.

It totally escapes me what codes these do-nothings are so busy enforcing (or willing to enforce) that they give a pass to the illegal business still operated by TLC Catering, along with its accumulation of castoff and abandoned equipment and vehicles.

And the city wonders why only 4.5% of complaints/reports/and such come through their wonderful new system. Have they considered the "human element" of their system? Maybe the whales are still grazing the greenbacks (you know, "lettuce", "vigorish", etc.)

May they swallow more than they can stomach.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chumming for Whales

This script is so predictable it does not take a mentalist to recite the lines before the (very bad) actor speaks them.

  • Months ago, a code enforcement officer said to me, "Anyone can have a commercial icemaker on their property."
  • During the same conversation he said, "The activity going on next door is not a business."
  • Last week, a code enforcement supervisor tells me, in essence, "Anyone can have several giant metal freezer boxes on their property."
  • And I am now informed (below), "Anyone can collect abandoned catering trucks on their property."

These are the "quality of life" issues as determined by code enforcement officers of the City of Manteca.

This latest exchange took place over a "Papa Bear" sized catering truck, a "Mama Bear" sized vending vehicle, and a "Baby Bear" sized Buick Regal, all parked along one edge of the property next door. All have "For Sale" signs in the front windshields, but nobody can see them because they are totally faded, scootched down sideways behind the windshields, the windshields so dirty it's hard to see them, and they cannot be made out from the sidewalk in any event. Just giant metal boxes on wheels, no longer used in the unlawful TLC Catering business.

The City of Manteca has an on-line program for communications from the citizenry. At city council meetings, the administration simply cannot figure out why so few complaints come through the system versus people calling the police department. Well, here's an example of the shallow and specious responses one gets from the one in charge of code enforcement.

-----Original Message-----From: Manteca Help Line []Sent: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 2:43 PMTo: Richard BehlingSubject: Manteca-CRM: New Request # 197462 [3132316139643362]

Dear Richard,

Thank you for contacting the City of Manteca. We appreciate the opportunity to assist you and assure you a positive experience with us.

The Problem you submitted was:

Request type: Inoperable Vehicle on Private Property


1. Abandoned mobile food preparation unit (catering truck).

CA license # 4A09350, no current tag. Cast-off from unlawful business operation. Permanently located alongside parking spot of remaining operational truck and used as unauthorized storage unit.

2. Abandoned mobile food vending truck.

CA license # 3V60905, no current tag. Cast-off from unlawful business operation.

3. Abandoned automobile – Regal.

CA license # 732PGK, no current tag.

When a person signs up and logs in, the messages are tagged with all that indentifying information. But the city employee who responds to it is anonymous unless he/she signs the response. In this case - nothing - and this message was irresistable to one who speaks with a mellifluous voice like unto God.

-----Original Message-----From: Manteca Help Line []Sent: Monday, November 17, 2008 2:44 PMTo: Richard BehlingSubject: Manteca-CRM: Closed Request # 197462 [3132316139643362]

Dear Richard,

Your request # 197462 has been resolved with the resolution:

All vehicles on the property are whole and complete and are operable. Current registration is not required unless a vehicle is to be operated upon a public roadway.

How disingenuous is that answer? Any moron, myself included, knows he can't drive without tags! The whole point of the complaint is to get an officer, well-versed in the Municipal Code and its intent, to apply such code to the situation at hand. An even larger issue is this: Equipment formerly used in the unlawful business cannot be "legalized" merely by abandonment, because it then becomes "abandoned." Duh... like, do I have to explain the code to him?

(Of course, this anonymous soul seems to need all the help he/she can get.)

-----Original Message-----From: Manteca Help Line []Sent: Monday, November 17, 2008 6:14 PMTo: Richard BehlingSubject: Manteca-CRM: New Request # 198750 [3437656466356137]

Dear Richard,

Thank you for contacting the City of Manteca. We appreciate the opportunity to assist you and assure you a positive experience with us.

The Complaint you submitted was:

Request type: Abandoned Vehicle


See Request # 197462, closed prematurely.

Thank you for verifying the operating condition and registration status of the three vehicles listed in the complaint. However, your report does not answer to the definitions spelled out in Manteca’s Municipal Code, Section 8.20.010, A. and D., for abandoned and inoperative vehicles.

These three vehicles are not registered, appear by sight to have been left to the elements, and cannot be lawfully operated upon any highway. Section 8.20.020 recounts the city council making the finding that since the 1980’s the accumulation of abandoned or inoperative vehicles on private property (three’s a crowd!) tends to reduce the value of private property and to promote blight and deterioration and declaring such storage a public nuisance.

The one possible exemption is if “A vehicle” [singular] is completely enclosed within a building in a lawful manner where it is not visible from the street or other public or private property. That would apply threefold to this accumulated fleet, yet the subject property has no such structure or facility.

For the twenty-two months I have been personally aware of these vehicles, there has never been any apparent good faith effort to dispose of them. Indeed, the sun-faded and obscured “For Sale” signs in the windows are truly only diversionary window dressing.

Quit dithering around and issue the "ten-day notice of intention to abate and remove the vehicles."

From my experience with the "Make-The-Citizens-Think-We're-Listening" reporting system, I would strongly discourage anyone from routing any messages to code enforcement for the present... unless you like chumming... and get a nibble like I did.

Monday, November 17, 2008

EHD - Enablng Hardcore Dereliction

Somehow, TLC Catering has managed to stay in business. After seeing some of the shoddy, half-completed Environmental Health Department applications they have submitted over the years, I don't know how they do it, but at least they keep their EHD permits up. Perhaps they make EHD clerks and inspectors go blind by using the same magical fairy dust they sprinkle on Manteca city employees.

Following up on the property's building permits requested last week from the City of Manteca, below is a letter to the EHD seeking a corresponding history of program permits and health inspections. A copy of this letter is also going to the same City of Manteca official in charge of building permits and home occupation permits so he can see what TLC Catering was doing without the city's permission.

November 17, 2008

Donna Heran, Director
Environmental Health Department
600 East Main Street
Stockton, CA 95202

Re: Public records request

Dear Ms. Heran,
I visited your offices in Stockton on August 20th and reviewed the TLC Catering files you provided at my request. Your staff was helpful and the review productive.

Some needed items, however, were not found in those files:
1. The number and type of permits (program elements) existing on December 17, 1986.

2. A year-by-year history of the number and type of permits (program elements) issued from December 17, 1986 to now.

3. Records of the “Program 1680 Plan Check,” referred to on the attached Account Statement. The four hours billed between 6/1/94 and 6/9/94 I assume represent checklists of equipment, diagrams of placement, narratives of commissary processes, and reports of visual inspections prior to issuing the commissary permit on 7/13/94.

4. Annual commissary inspection reports from 7/13/94 to the first one in the commissary file, 12/9/02.

The subjects of the requested files and records are:

810 Fishback Street (Manteca after 12/17/86), or
18594 S Fishback Rd (SJCo before 12/17/86), and
Lynda S Allen and/or Theresa A Brassey (property/business owners), and
TLC Catering (business name).

Ms. Heran, I would be pleased to receive a written response as to when such records will be made available.

Respectfully submitted by,

Richard W. Behling

cc: Mark Nelson, Manteca Community Development Director

All of this effort is necessary because Manteca's code enforcement still spreads the patently absurd story that TLC Catering's operation is like that of a tradesman parking the company truck in the driveway at home for the night. (News flash! There is no company re-supply depot in the tradesman's garage!)

The owners of TLC Catering apparently don't know a grandfather from a grandmother, and have risked their entire operation on their deliberately ignoring Manteca's zoning laws.

Unfortunately, all the county and city officials, who have had to suffer the insufferable, got magical TLC fairy dust in their eyes.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Manteca City Hall - Black Hole of the Delta

All my communications go in and nothing comes out. O.K., a few weak signals are detected infrequently, but even those are so garbled that nothing intelligent can be made out. Since I am the only person to believe a Home Occupation violation of felony proportions exists, it follows that I should have to do my own research of primary documents held by the City of Manteca.

Here is my first request for public records, held by Manteca, which directly prove the unlawful expansion of TLC Catering, and will bear directly on its relocation - or its demise.

November 14, 2008

Joann Tilton,
Manteca City Clerk
1001 West Center Street
Manteca, CA 95337

Re: Public records request

Dear Ms. Tilton,
The need exists to establish the level of non-compliant business use of a certain residential property at the time of annexation into the City of Manteca on December 17, 1986. More importantly, in exceeding “grandfather” provisions and in the absence of a home occupation permit, the need exists to document the illegal expansion and enlargement of the non-compliant business use in order to properly abate it from the residential property. Therefore, I require certain files and records from the City.

The subjects of the requested files and records are:

810 Fishback Street,
Lynda S Allen (property/business owner),
Theresa A Brassey (property/business owner), and/or
TLC Catering (business name).

I am requesting building permit applications and final inspections for the siting, construction, roofing, wiring, and/or plumbing for the following listed projects. Most of these records were likely generated in the time period of 1992 through 2002; some, of course, may be earlier or later.

1. Portable building, California license plate # FQ1259, used as dry commissary and electrical feed station for catering trucks.
2. Attached covered porch on the west side of portable building in #1, above.
3. Attached covered patio on the northerly east side of portable building in #1, above.
4. Trailmobile full size shipping container, with two roof-mounted refrigeration compressors with electrical feed, on the southerly east side of the portable building in #1, above.
5. Walk-in freezer, with roof-mounted refrigeration compressor and electrical feed, on the north property line.
6. Scotsman commercial icemaker, with remote condenser unit roof-mounted on previously existing outbuilding, with electrical feed, plumbing for water feed and drainage, and refrigerant plumbing, on the north property line.
7. Attached covered patio on the north side of previously existing outbuilding on the north property line. (Support posts and corrugated fiberglass roofing material do not meet required setback from property line.)
8. Seven solar panel arrays, with any storage batteries and control units, in the northerly and easterly portion of yard.

And, one other small thing from either Finance or Solid Waste Division:
Is 810 Fishback Street exempt from curbside refuse pickup? If so, I need evidence of when and how that waiver was determined.

Joann, I would be pleased to receive a written response as to when such records, in whole or a schedule of parts, will be made available.

Respectfully submitted by,

Richard W. Behling

cc: Mark Nelson, Community Development Director

These are some of the records a competent official would use in verifying the facts I laid out in my November 5th letter. The O. Rex has already risen well past his "Peter Principle" limit, so my hopes are pinned on a new guy to see a real problem, and on an internationally acclaimed city clerk who may know where the records are buried (not just the skeletons.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Double Talk by the Double Dipper

Now this is a true multitasker! Even while the inventive O. Rex lamely attempts to distance himself from the freshly unearthed last-minute campaign contribution subterfuge by claiming, "I don't mix church and state" (What did he say???), he spins around and reinvents the ongoing illegalities of TLC Catering and its owners. In response to my posting a complaint of two big pieces of abandoned commercial equipment, comes this unsigned answer, hot off the Government Outreach website (aka, "Make-the-Citizens-Think-We're-Listening" system.)

Dear Richard,

Your request # 197457 has been resolved with the resolution:

After recently checking into a similar situation regarding PODS, I have been told by planning that there is no specific prohibition of a shipping container on residential property. There is also nothing that requires that the "walk-in refrigerator/freezer" actually be used for any specific purpose, and therefore, is not illegal.

(Hah! thinks he. City-2, Whiner-0!)

Wow! From what evolutionary epoch does this lethargic, reptilian thinking spring? The fact that the period of time when these freezers WERE used for their specifically designed and intended purpose was an illegal business use, is somehow forgotten and forgiven when the freezers are abandoned and, therefore, now being "legal" need not be removed? What is the intent of Chapter 17.53, Property Maintenance, and why does our twice-paid code guru not understand it and dismiss complaints so lightly? Just because some dillweed debutantes "convert" business assets to personal use (ie., abandonment), the relics no longer contribute to property degradation, or present a public nuisance? Perhaps it is just another ordinary case of Manteca's resident psychotics collecting giant metal boxes with compressors on top for no purpose except to enhance the aesthetics of their back yard?

Go ahead, Mantecans, hang your (clean) laundry out to dry in your front yard and see what happens.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hauling Out the Trailer Trash - One Piece at a Time

O.K., folks, it's time to clean up for the annual health department inspection of the commissary operation. Of course, we don't have to worry about the really big ticket items because the county's Environmental Health Department only checks food temperatures, hot water, washing hands, and whether the ice scoop is clean (more on that last one later.)

Anyway, five (5) pieces of trailer trash are hidden in plain sight, among all the other building code violations and affronts to common sense and decency. Can you spot them?

The first two fall under something called "Property Maintenance" in Manteca's Municipal Code (Chapter 17.53.) Freezers are specifically mentioned in both the "Unlawful Residential Property Nuisance" section and the "Unlawful Nonresidential Property Nuisance" section - so the code boys from city hall can take their pick (they seem to be confused whether this is a business or not.)

These two big metal boxes with compressors on top were apparently used during TLC Catering's heyday (circa 1999, four EHD truck licenses and the EHD commissary license.) Now they are used for storing junk and harboring vermin and feral cats. Don't believe me? See for yourself.

Abandoned Trailmobile full size shipping container.

Located along east property line, behind the commissary trailer. Cast-off from unlawful business operation. Unused for at least two years, probably more. Formerly used as walk-in refrigerator/freezer with two roof-mounted compressors.

Abandoned metal insulated walk-in refrigerator/freezer.

Located along north property line, in vicinity of commercial icemaker and several refrigerators. Cast-off from unlawful business operation. Unused for at least two years, probably more.

Abandoned vehicles

The three vehicles are under a different part of the Municipal Code, in Chapter 8.20, Abandoned Vehicles. The city council found that: "The accumulation and storage of abandoned, wrecked, dismantled or inoperative vehicles or parts thereof on private or public property not including highways is found to create a condition tending to reduce the value of private property, to promote blight and deterioration, ..." Yup, I agree with that.

Unlicensed and inoperative vehicles can only be stored on residential property if they are enclosed in a building and not visible from the street or other public or private property. The interesting thing about all three vehicles is the For Sale sign inside each windshield, as if the owners are pretending to dispose of them. This car and these trucks "appear by sight to have been left to the elements" and the California Highway Patrol confirms their unlicensed and inoperative status.

It's bad enough that Manteca allows (even protects) an illegal business to operate on this property. Worse, still is the official denial of its existence and operation. Now, we get to watch the business jetsam turn to detritus...

Two complaints were entered into the city's "government out-of-reach" website, one for the two freezers and one for the three vehicles. However, the two "pigeon hole" classifications for the complaints were both assigned to code enforcement, so I estimate the liklihood of real resolution to be zero (0.00%).

We will watch to see which gets the cast offs first - rust or city enforcement people. (No bets taken - that's illegal, you know.)

Monday, November 3, 2008

K.I.S.S. (for Manteca City Hall)

Well, THAT election is over. The radio pundits said, "We have to educate the voters!" My observation is that educating voters is virtually identical to graduating seniors from high school.

The candidates I voted for did not win. {~sigh~} One incumbent is returning to the Manteca City Council. The other may or may not, depending on the final count, because there was only a seven-vote spread last night between second and third. The official canvasse will take a few days.

Back to "educating" Manteca city managers again, I took up the pen (or, keyboard) and sent a letter to the Director of Community Development (a.k.a., Planning Director.) This is the guy who is supposed to be in charge of everything zoning related, including home occupation permits. After meeting with two of his guys last week and leaving only three documents with them, I now included an entire copy of my report and the report of last week's meeting.

November 5, 2008

Mr. Mark Nelson
Director of Community Development
1001 West Center Street
Manteca, CA 95337

Dear Mr. Nelson,

I am requesting a home occupation review by the Director of Community Development, under authority granted him by the Manteca Municipal Code, Section 17.25.020, regarding the following illegal home occupation expansion:

While still part of unincorporated County of San Joaquin, Lynda Allen and Theresa Brassey, owners of TLC Catering, began parking one or two catering trucks on their residential property at 18594 South Fishback Road. From the beginning they operated with only two permits: 1) a business license from the City of Tracy, and 2) a Health Department permit for each truck from the County of San Joaquin, Environmental Health Department (EHD). For whatever reason, the County of San Joaquin allowed that use of residential property, but never issued any Conditional Use permit.

On December 17, 1986, the property was annexed into the City of Manteca and the address was changed to 810 Fishback Street. The city "grandfathered" the existing business use (that is, the parking of trucks); the city did not "grandfather" the business as a whole.

In 1991, a TLC application to EHD indicated they were still using outside commissaries to re-supply the catering trucks.

In 1992, the City of Manteca adopted its Home Occupation Permit ordinance.

Sometime in early 1993, a complaint was lodged against TLC Catering and City personnel responded with some type of enforcement action. This incident caused TLC to request a determination of legal status from Manteca's Planning Department. The City's letter was issued on June 29, 1993, and clearly explained the doctrine of "grandfathering"; that is, TLC could continue to park their trucks on the property, but no more than existed in 1986, and no other business use of the property would be permitted.

(The content of the complaint, the resolution, and the file copy of the determination letter were requested months ago, but the City files have not yet been produced.)

On September 17, 1993 - only eighty days after the letter - TLC made a very risky business decision. Against the instruction they just received, they decided to increase the number of trucks and to build a commissary for all those trucks and to do all this on-site, on their residential property, to avoid renting commercial space elsewhere.

This business enlargement is illegal because of the "grandfather" restriction on business use expansion AND because this 1993-94 commissary project is subject to Manteca's 1992 Home Occupation ordinance. Lynda Allen, Theresa Brassey, or TLC Catering did not even bother to apply for a home occupation permit.

Manteca Planning Department and Code Enforcement were A.W.O.L. while TLC Commissary was born. On July 13, 1994, EHD issued a Commissary Permit to TLC Catering, after much of the following was accomplished.

  • A portable building (with building permit?) was brought onto the property to serve as the dry commissary.

  • A metal walk-in freezer and a full size steel shipping container (building permits?), with roof-mounted compressors, were installed to store frozen products.

  • Various refrigerators to hold perishable ingredients for use in the mobile food preparation units (catering trucks).

  • Commercial delivery trucks from Crystal Dairy, Hostess Cakes, and Oroweat make regular deliveries to the property at 3:00 a.m., 6:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, and other times.

  • The crowning achievement was to acquire an antique commercial icemaker to produce up to 400 pounds of ice a day for use on the ice-cooled trucks. (Not rated for household use and wrongly located, all the noise goes to the neighbors!)

  • In addition to all the commercial equipment, sheds, porches, and coverings (more building permits?) were constructed all around the property to protect their investments from the elements.

  • Plugging in the trucks at night, floodlights, strings of yard lights, and all the commercial appliances draw power... LOTS of power. Seven massive solar panel units were installed and wired into the property grid.

  • Solid wastes from the catering trucks were (and are) stored on-site in an open pickup truck until taken off-site to the refuse transfer station.

  • Liquid wastes from the catering trucks were (and are) stored on-site in barrels until taken off-site by a pumper truck.

    Please correct this unconscionable situation. This is a power assigned to the Planning Director by city law. I am not seeking the closure of the commissary, merely its relocation to a properly zoned location. This is not code enforcement's call; they will be obligated to carry out the decision, but they do not make the decision.

    Enclosed you will find a copy of the report, with footnoted attachments and other enclosures, received by Mr. Pinkerton on September 3rd. In addition are my notes of my October 29th meeting at City Hall with Mr. Meissner and Mr. Rey.

    Respectfully submitted by,

    Richard W. Behling

    Enclosures: Timeline Regarding 810 Fishback Street, with footnotes and attachments.
    Review of EHD Public Records.
    Commissary Operations Observed.
    Abatement Options and Special Conditions.
    Notes on Meeting with Mr. Meissner.

Let's see how much more time Mr. Nelson needs to wrap his head around the facts.

Actually, Mr. Nelson was just appointed as a big cheese with the Redevelopment Agency (RDA.) Since my neighborhood is blighted by an operating business, with business noise and abandoned business equipment littering one particular parcel, perhaps the RDA could redevelop that parcel back into a residence? Hmmm... our tax dollars at work.

(I hope he gets it done before the infamous O. Rex [spawn of the insatiable T. Rex] trundles himself down the hallway at the smell of new blood.)