County regulations amended to require individuals in most cases to provide names and addresses when filing Code Enforcement complaints
On July 1, 2021, a new state law went into effect, making it illegal for code enforcement officers to act on anonymous complaints.
In response to a Sarasota News Leader request about the impacts of that action over the ensuing months, the county’s Code Enforcement Division staff provided data for calls during the year preceding the change in state law, along with data for the year after the anonymity factor went into effect:
- From July 1, 2020 until July 1, 2021, the number of requests for service was 3,880.
- The number of requests for service from July 1, 2021 to July 1, 2022 fell to 2,361. Thus, in the wake of the new law, the total dropped about 39%.
- For Siesta Key, the Code Enforcement staff received 249 requests for service from July 1, 2020 to July 22, 2021.
- On the Key, the number of complaints added up to 153 from July 1, 2021 to July 22 of this year. Thus, the total for the barrier island dropped about 39%, year-over-year.
As stated in Senate Bill 60, which was approved during the Legislature’s 2021 session, “code inspectors designated by boards of county commissioners [are prohibited] from initiating investigations of potential violations of codes and ordinances” and initiating enforcement proceedings for potential violations, if they are based on anonymous complaints.
On July 12, the County Commission voted unanimously to amend the relevant section of Sarasota County’s Unified Development Code (UDC) to reflect that legislative language, as noted in a county staff memo prepared for the commission’s agenda packet for its regular meeting that day.
The UDC contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations.
The staff memo added that the Legislature’s adoption of House Bill 883 also made it necessary for all Code Enforcement complaints to “include the contact information (name and address) of the complainant unless there is substantial fear of retaliation or of status-based legal jeopardy.”
No individuals had signed up to speak during the July 12 public hearing on the amendment to the UDC, and no commissioner offered a comment about the issue before the vote.
The item was listed on the agenda that day as Presentation Upon Request, but no commissioner asked for any staff remarks, either.
The July 12 staff memo also pointed out that the processing of the amendment did not necessitate any public outreach, because the amendment was a result of the change in state law.
Previously, Section 124-293(a) of the UDC said, “Whenever a violation of the UDC occurs, or is alleged to have occurred, any person may file a complaint. A complaint may be filed in writing or orally and may be submitted anonymously. Such complaint, stating fully the causes and basis thereof, shall be filed with the Planning and Development Services Department. The Administrator or Code Enforcement Officer shall record properly such complaint, investigate within a reasonable time, and take action thereon as provided by this UDC.”
The new state law does allow a Code Enforcement officer to act without a name and address of a complainant, if that officer “has reason to believe that the violation presents an imminent threat to public health, safety, or welfare or imminent destruction of habitat or sensitive resources.” However, that language was not included in the UDC amendment.
In response to a News Leader question about that, Planning and Development Services staff acknowledged that that language was left out of the ordinance that the commissioners approved in early July. In a July 27 email, the staff added, “Although staff has and would continue this practice, to ensure clarification with the Statute, staff plans to add the sentence in the upcoming UDC cycle of amendments.”
The Planning and Development Services staff has been providing two amendment cycles each year — in the spring and in September. Those are open for members of the public wishing to propose modifications of the UDC, as well as for staff to recommend changes.