Clean up your own backyard
Oh, don’t you hand me none of your lines
Clean up your own backyard
You tend to your business, I’ll tend to mine
Twenty-three of 290 Upland residents whose properties are being encumbered by selectively placed assessments turned the tables on the Upland City Council this week, during a spontaneous rather than planned contesting of those officials’ municipal authority.
Despite the efforts of the council members to brand two dozen of their constituents as scofflaws and impose on them what were labeled as “exorbitant” and “draconian” fines and penalties for their alleged failure to maintain their property, some of those being singled out for the city’s sanctions were able to marshal evidence to demonstrate that the city’s public property – for which all five members of the council are at the ultimate level officially responsible – is being maintained in a state that is equally or more abysmal, in many cases, to their own.
According to the city, 290 primarily residential properties in the city at one point or another this year were overgrown with weeds. Of those, as of last month 24 were yet out of compliance to the point that the city had contractors remove the vegetation deemed to not be in code or which was creating a potential fire hazard. Any property owner whose yard elicited the attention of city employees in this manner were immediately subjected to a $72 fine. That would be the extent of it if those landowners rapidly complied with the city’s demand that the weeds be removed. Those who tarried would see that cost escalate, and in some cases, escalate dramatically. Owners whose properties were cited and not immediately purged of the complained-about vegetation were subject to an initial $72 citation fee, another $72 posting fee, and thereafter a $278 administrative fee or a $350 non-compliance fee, abatement costs equal to what the city contractor charged for removing the weeds from the property and an abatement supervision fee tacked on by the city. Multiple homeowners were hit with charges of $700 or greater, several with charges exceeding $800 and a handful sustained charges beyond that, approaching or exceeding in some cases $10,000.
To levy those fines and assessments, the city council was required to hold a public hearing which gives property owners charged with abatement costs and/or administrative fees a chance to address the council prior to the council approving the list of assessments that city staff represents as intended to defray the costs of carrying out the inspections of the subject properties, citing the property owners and informing them of having to remove the unwanted vegetation, monitoring the property for compliance and, in those cases where the vegetation removal did not occur, bringing in a city contractor to effectuate the weed abatement.
Monday night the Upland City Council was due to accept a report on the city’s annual weed abatement program and sign off on placing assessments on the properties of city residents the city’s code enforcement division says it took abatement action against earlier this year.
City officials sought, and initially succeeded, in setting the frame of reference and defining the issue.
Under the guidance of Robert Dalquest, Upland’s Director of Development Services, Julie Hernandez, the city’s weed abatement coordinator, initially assured the city council that the city carries out its inspection, citation, reinspection, follow-up and abatement processes in a by-the-book fashion, giving those cited ample warning and adequate information to allow the excessive vegetation to be removed prior to the abatement by the city contractor taking place, which entails greater expense for the property owner. She used a power point presentation which was visible to those within the council chambers as well as anyone viewing the meeting on the local cable network and on the city’s website.
According to Hernandez, every inspection and notice was uniformly done for every property found to be out of compliance. That work, she said, was carried out without favoritism or bias.
“It was all the same for every property in Upland,” she said.
The city council in February approved a resolution declaring what the city defined as “unmaintained” properties and those where fire hazards existed as code violations. On March 1, Hernandez said, the city initiated inspections of properties. A file was opened on properties deemed to be in violation and the property owners were given a ten-day timeframe to bring the properties into compliance, followed by a site inspection. That action triggered a minimum $72 charge to the property owner, she said.
Residents were given adequate warning of the program and an explanation of the standards the city was applying, Hernandez said. “The residents were notified by the city website, the [City Hall] marquee, social media,” she said. “Also, a notice was included in all water or utility bills that were sent for residents in the City of Upland. That was the first notification that inspections would be starting in the city. On March 26, I held a public education meeting at the Carnegie Building, just so that anybody that got a notice, if they had any questions, I was there to personally answer any questions they might have.”
If the properties were at that point considered to be in compliance, she said, the case was considered to be closed. If compliance with the city’s code was not achieved, she said, photos of the violations and further notation of the situation was made in the case file for that property not brought into compliance. At a council meeting on June 13, the council declared non-compliant properties as hazards and requested the abatement of fire hazards and nuisances.
Abatements were initiated June 14, with site inspections and postings on the property occurring before the abatement was begun, Hernandez said.
“Site inspection and postings before abatement were done,” Hernandez said. “If the violations were corrected, then the case was closed. So, at the posting time, we went up to every door and knocked and were able to meet with most people to let them know that an abatement was going to happen. If they weren’t available at the time of posting, then we posted the notice on their door.”
From June 18 until July 24, she said, abatements were completed on 24 properties.
As a result, she said, those cited whose properties were abated were subject to an initial $72 citation fee, another $72 inspection fee; a $278 administrative fee to cover the cost of taking photos, updating the file and preparing a report for the city council.
Thus, according to Hernandez, the lion’s share of those caught up in the code enforcement action with regard to weed abatement were being fined $422.
“There are invoices for $422,” she said. “This amount includes the initial $72 and an additional $72 for the second inspection, a $278 administrative fee that includes the case update, photos, the council report preparation. If the property was in compliance at this time, then the case was closed. So, there will be $422 invoices. Because the violation existed there, there are administrative fees for the notice and the photos and things that happen after.”
Ultimately, if further action was required, another $72 posting fee was levied, along with a $350 non-compliance fee, as well as abatement costs and abatement supervision costs, Hernandez said.
“Any invoice over the $422 includes the $72 initial inspection fee, then $350 for the second inspection and the non-compliance, then there was a $72 posting fee,” Hernandez said. “We actually conducted an inspection at the time of posting to let the people know that we were going to come out to do the abatement, so that’s $72 for that. On each of the abatements I was present just to make sure that what we were requesting was done and if there were any questions from the property owner or any concerns. I was there to answer them, and it wasn’t just the contractor. I was there at every one of the abatements.
“Today, we’re here for the final city council meeting where we’re asking permission to place the fees and administrative costs on the property taxes,” Hernandez said. “A total of 290 properties were assessed. In 2019, there were 376 properties assessed. I just wanted to make sure you had that information so that you understood this was how the process was throughout, for every case that we had.”
During the public hearing, 23 people were heard from, 21 who were present in the council chambers and two who spoke by phone.
Many disputed what Hernandez said. Some claimed that they had been given less than clear indication of what the lack of compliance they were cited for entailed and they claimed they were not given explicit instructions as to what they needed to do. Others said they had removed the weeds or made the corrections requested but that the city had not acknowledged that they had done so. Others said they were unable to make contact with city employees in the aftermath of receiving the notices, despite making efforts to do so.
Doug Mullane said he was intent on contesting the fine against his property of $10,928.03.
“I got my first and only notice in April,” Mullane said. “I called in to get some feedback on the notice. The only call I got back from them, in that call they pretty much responded in the same way that code enforcement has in that, ‘As long as you make progress on the work, that’s great. You won’t be fined.’ I made sure to ask, ‘Can I call you back to get feedback on my property to get support, to find out what I need to work more on, what I need to focus more on?’ From April to late June, I called seven times. I left six messages and never heard one response. Because I heard nothing back, I had no idea I was not doing enough. As a result of all of this stuff they did on my property, you killed at a minimum at least 24 of my fruit trees, in containers and in the ground, big healthy fruit trees, destroyed a lot of my property. Some things, really, had nothing to do with weed abatement. Throwing away a big picnic table? How is that weed abatement? What gives the city, this forum, the right to destroy my property, to kill my fruit trees? What does that have to do with weed abatement?”
Mullane added, “The fine of $10,000 plus is way excessive.”
Michael Gillooly, who came to the podium with his wife Sandra, told the council that he and his wife had just moved to Upland in December 2021. He said notices had come to his home in the name of the previous property owner.
“We never once got a notice,” Gillooly said. “It was all sent to the old property owner.”
He said he the property was posted on June 17, after which he said he used his weed eater to take out a shrub in his front yard. “I emailed Ms. Hernandez several times,” Gillooly said, displaying several sheets of paper in his hand. “I have all of the correspondence right here. I even copied the mayor, city council, and no one returns my call or memorializes their comments in an email. I find it a bit disingenuous when Ms. Hernandez suggests she is returning or being open in assisting the folks here in the City of Upland when in fact I never got a return email. No one could have just responded and told me how I can redress this or how I can fix this?”
Giloolly questioned Hernandez’s representations and veracity.
“She mentions that the information that we’re supposed to have our weed abatement squared away via our notices for our water bill, but I’ve got two months’ worth of water bills here and not a single mention is listed on there about weed abatement,” Gilooly said. “I’m hopeful that someone can identify where that is. My wife was there, too, the day that you folks showed up with your vendors, and they were literally there for two minutes. I was talking to my wife because I was at work. She says that Ms. Hernandez was not there. It just seems there are too many holes with respect to the process and how all this went down.”
Gilooly said he wanted to contest the $700 fee he and his wife had been hit with less than a year after moving to the city. “It’s an overreach,” he said.
Hernandez and Dahlquest had the use of the city’s photo- and video-display system and overhead projectors to assist them in their presentation. They were able to present visual evidence of what they said were code violations and excessive weed growth at several properties in the form of photos. Those photos were visible on the overhead monitors in the council chamber, but were not displayed on the video broadcast on the local cable channels or on the city’s website. Several of the residents who spoke before the council brought with them photographic evidence intended to show the progress they had made in responding to the citations they had received.
Those addressing the council had three minutes to present their case. The city counted against those three minutes the time the residents had to expend in presenting their photographic evidence, which was displayed on the overhead projectors within the council chambers. Despite that, the viewers of the video broadcast both on local cable channels and on the city’s website were not able to see that evidence on their viewing screens. This, to some degree, undercut the case those residents were making. In real time, during the meeting, the Sentinel by text message pointed out to Councilman Carlos Garcia and Councilwoman Janice Elliott that the video viewers were being deprived of the visual displays. No effort was made by the city, however, to adjust the broadcast to provide the home viewers or website viewers with that photographic evidence.
Adam Pone told the council, “A lot of people here are a little bit confused on how to correct it, because we have removed the weed[s]. We have a parcel that’s out in front, maybe like 200-, 300-square feet of it. We cleared it. It’s kind of like half-an-inch from the ground. It’s clean, unless you want us to take out the topsoil. I don’t know what else to do. It’s not creating a pest situation or some type of vermin or anything like that. Are we supposed to completely like gut it? I think it’s a lot of confusion that’s going on and miscommunication. I think as residents of Upland we should be given the opportunity to just correct this effectively. There is nothing that’s clear enough to say what we need to do. There’s some kind of breakdown in communication here. That’s what I’m hearing from other residents, too. We are in a drought. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We’re not trying to flagrantly create any problems for the city or what have you here.”
Glenda Tharp said, “I received a preliminary notice in the mail. Never had anybody come to my house on my yard. The weeds were mostly taken care of. They were all taken care. I am a handicapped senior citizen, and I am out there digging weeds. I talked to Ms. Hernandez and she said as long as the weeds weren’t over three inches. When I got the second one for the fine, I had one visible weed. I did find another one over three inches, but it was not where it could be seen. I have pictures of my house. She probably does, too. I do have rocks in my yard. I also have a quote here to put artificial grass in my front yard. I’m waiting on a quote for drought-tolerant landscaping. This will be taken care. Other than that weed right there,” she said, referring to a photo that was visible on the overhead projector in the council chambers but which was not visible in the video broadcast on the city’ cable outlets or on the city’s website. “There are no weeds over three inches tall. For comparison, there is a neighbor who has weeds like this,” she said, indicating another photo the city did not display within the video, “who did not get anything. My yard will be fixed. I think the fine is unfair, since I have one weed that is over three inches.”
Theresa Litwinski said, “I’m a schoolteacher. I was home the whole time and, you know, no one came to my house. They supposedly did weed abatement. I don’t know what they did, because I was there. I don’t know what happened to you, Julie. I didn’t get to see you.”
Litwinski continued, “Now, admittedly, we had wind problems in January, and I have to redo my fence. Finally got somebody to come give me a quote. This is the way it happened: The first letter, I made sure there was no weeds. I even left a message: ‘I will make sure it’s all taken care of.’ Then a second one. I guess I didn’t meet the requirement. So, I called, left a message, saying, ‘What else do you want from me? I don’t know what’s missing. Admittedly, the fence is coming down, but it’s going to have a new one up in two weeks. I called and left messages. On the recording, it now says, ‘If I don’t get a hold of you, I will think the problem is resolved.’ No one’s called me. I have no missed calls. I was home from June 1 until August 1, and I stayed at home because of COVID, and I made sure and I tried to take care of things. We’re talking about 36 feet. I do not want to be charged $703, especially [since] someone supposedly came and took care of the weeds. What weeds? I took care of them all myself. I bought my own weed whacker. I do not feel the $703.12 should be charged to me. There’s no weeds on the ground. The ivy is dying because I’m trying to kill it with the weed whacker.”
Paul Furness said, “All I got was this letter. No photos. No previous knock on the door or notice on the door. We called the number. No response. I’m surprised. This is dated July 21. I don’t know when this property was deemed to be unacceptable, but we’ve had a gardener for over three months now. I have pictures that I can show.”
Upon showing photos of his front and side yard, Furness said, “I’m not really sure what’s the matter with this. If you can point it out, I’d be interested.”
Furness then launched a full frontal attack on the integrity of the city.
Displaying another photo, which the city once again did not include in the cable broadcast of the meeting or the city website broadcast of the meeting, he said, “I also took a picture here of Mountain Avenue, a pile of pine needles that are a part of the Upland area that you guys are responsible for. I felt like that was way more dangerous than my property. I think you would probably agree if you look at that picture. I’m miffed and stunned.”
Emerson Levitt said, We believe we received this letter in error because we don’t have weeds in our yard.”
To refute Levitt, Hernandez displayed on the council chamber’s visual display monitors a photo of a home. That photo was not visible to those watching the video on the local cable channels or the city’s website.
Levitt retorted, “That’s not our house.”
He then displayed on the chamber monitors a photo of his home. “That is our house with very, very little to no weeds. I have a letter from my gardener, which tells me that he takes care of like 80 percent of the weeds, and I do the other maybe 20 percent. When we called about it, we left a message that said we’d get a call back in two days, which is a common theme, I guess, and we didn’t receive a call back. We’re asking that this be waived because it’s the wrong house.”
If Furness had landed a gut punch that knocked the wind out of the city council, Edward Bobich landed a series of head shots that left the five members either on their backs on the canvas counting lights or against the ropes.
Dr. Bobich, who has a PhD in biology from UCLA and is a professor at Cal Poly Pomona, told the city council, “I am a plant ecologist. I have also eight years landscaping experience before I got my PhD. In April, we received a notice, with pictures, stating that we had violated the weed abatement program or at least the goals of the weed abatement program. We weren’t sure how. So, I did contact Julie [Hernandez] and she stated that it wasn’t weeds that were the issue. It was the access to the house by the fire department, which is something that I had never heard before.”
Displaying photos that were visible to those in physical attendance at the meeting but which were not displayed in the video broadcast on the city’s cable networks or the city’s website, Bobich said, “I don’t know how easily you can see my house there, but that was in April. There aren’t nearly as many plants there now because the flowers are gone.”
He then switched to a different photo, which again was not visible to those viewing the video. “I have a picture of it today,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of access the fire department needs, but we have our sidewalks completely clear. There are spaces between all of the plants.”
Displaying more photographs, Bobich said, “They could easily walk to the front of the house. This is the side of the house. This is the drive leading up. This is the back here. This is the front of the house showing a completely cleared area in front. So, I’m kind of confused. I went and I trimmed shrubs. I didn’t hear anything. We received another notice on July 21. This one didn’t have any explanation as to why we would receive this. I don’t know if we were ever charged before or not. So, now I’m kind of confused. If it’s about weeds, I don’t know. We have tiny little weeds in our yard, spurges that don’t grow more than a couple of inches tall. We had poppies in our yard. Those are not weeds.”
At that point, Bobich put some further photos on display, ones which again could be seen on the overhead monitors by all of those within the council chambers but not by those viewing the meeting from their homes on the local networks or by means of the video on the city’s website. He then let the city council members have it square on their jaws.
“Here’s some pictures I took, though, of Mountain Avenue going up to 16th Street in property that is owned by the city,” Bobich said. “These are weeds that are three feet tall. They’re Lactuca serriola, which is wild lettuce. There’s also pine needles all over the place. These are the same spurges that are in my yard. Basically, what I’d like to say is that the weed abatement program is kind of a joke if the City of Upland is not taking care of the weeds like in Green Belt Park or in any other area.”
Kevin Maloncon displayed a photo of the city-owned property near the 10 Freeway near the sidewalk on an unspecified street.
“My house had weeds,” Maloncon acknowledged. “I went and bought a brand new cordless grass trimmer, mower and one of those backpack things with the weed [whacker], so I could kill it because I used the salt and vinegar, [which] didn’t work. So, I had to get the pool acid. Then I get another notice, and I’m like, ‘Why is that?’ So, I look at the ordinance, and it says that if you get rid of your weeds, you’ll be good. But then if you have dead grass and dirt, you’re still in violation. I can’t win.”
“I think you guys should reevaluate this,” he continued. “As you can see, everybody’s kind of upset that Upland’s got weeds running up and down the city and you want us to pay for the guys to come out and look at our house. No one ever came out to my house. I did all the work.”
Darrell Medina said, “I received a notice a few months back. It talked about weeds and trash in the yard. I didn’t really have weeds and trash in the yard. So, I called. They said, ‘It was some of your plants are sort of overgrown.’ So, I went out and trimmed them and never heard another thing. I thinned some of this out and then I got another notice. So, since then I have taken the honeysuckles, which I had planted because we were low on bees and I thought I’d plant those. So, anyway, they’re gone. The plants out in the parkway – the only thing you can get to grow out in the parkway is succulents and a couple of palms. They seem to be doing well. I don’t think they look bad. Like everyone else, I just want to know what to do. Just tell me what to do. If someone would’ve left a note on my door – no one left a note on my door; if they said, ‘These trees, get rid of them,’ okay, I would have got rid of them. But now you guys want $480? No one’s came out and no one’s trimmed anything. I’ve cut everything down myself. Now, I’ve got to plant new plants because I think I may have overcut, because I really wasn’t sure of what people wanted. I think that’s why everybody’s here. Everybody talks about, ‘Oh, yeah, we left notes on the door.’ I never got a note on the door. I got two letters in the mail. The honeysuckles are gone. I just got the house repainted. [I’m] redoing the fence on the alleyway in the back. I’m putting a lot of money into the house. I don’t mind [fixing] things that are not in code. Like everyone else, I just want to know what to do.”
James Bean said, “I got my first notice in May. Shortly thereafter, we took care of the problem. We sent a voice mail plus pictures to the weed abatement people. We thought that it was all over and never heard back from them, never got a second notice. [I] walked out of my door a couple months later and I’ve got a posting on the front door. So, I called them back, finally got through to them, and said I’d like somebody to come out and show me what needs to be done on an issue I thought was already taken care of. Nobody ever came out. I got another notice, and just got one here in July that said they’ve abated the problem and I’ve got other charges which I don’t understand because nobody ever came out. All of my calls and all my emails have gone unanswered. Maybe one of you guys up their ought to do what they call an undercover boss and call weed abatement just to see what the whole program’s about, because I’m telling you, they’re a tough group to get a hold of. It’s not that we don’t want to take care of the problem, it’s just that we need a little help to understand what you guys need. I think you need a little tuning up on this program.”
Lisa Mayoral said “We never did receive a notice on any type of doors to do whatever we needed to do.”
She noted that a tree on a neighboring property had been blown down and landed on property owned by her mother earlier this year.
While Hernandez displayed on the council chamber’s overhead monitors photos of Mayoral’s mother’s property which were not visible on the video of the meeting broadcast on the city’s local channels or the one streaming on the city’s website, Mayoral said, “I don’t know where they said that they came out to do an abatement. I’m not sure what was abated, because as you can see that hill has just dirt. There was a cactus that was growing on it, and we pulled it off. We are renovating that property. Right now, we are planting on the hill, but it does take time to renovate a property. We gutted the whole unit. That would be the last part of it. We are just requesting that you look over this and waive the fee that is going to be attached to her property tax.”
Cynthia Zubiati told the city council, “There was no notice sent to us. There was nothing with our bill. There was no notice sent. Nobody came to our house. There was no notice left on the door. The only notice we have is this notice we received. You see the date is July 21 and it’s addressed to my father-in-law, who doesn’t live with us. So, I know it is illegal to open somebody else’s mail. We didn’t open it until he was able to come over and open that. So, we had no idea that this was an issue.”
Zubiati’s husband, Randy Griffin, referenced the photos of the property in question that were on display on the overhead monitors which were visible in the council chambers but which were not displayed on the video of the meeting that was broadcast on the city’s cable channels or posted to the city’s website. He stated, “What you see is already taken care of, whether we received a notice or not – because we didn’t – until we got this last week. We maintain our property regularly. You can ask our children. They’re out there with us. They clean the leaves at their own discretion to help out. We’re always cleaning up and maintaining. There are six palm trees that were put on our property prior to us moving in. About four weeks after we moved in, they got into our pipes, and we had a flood in the home. We ended up having to pay $25,000 to get everything taken care of. Since then, we’ve really been on our Ps and Qs when it comes to the property.”
James Donaldson told the council, “I am frustrated by the fact that I did my best to comply with the original notice that I received, did not receive a follow-up notice detailing the findings of the reinspection. I received no knock on my door. I don’t profess to be the smartest guy in the world, but based on the information that I was given, I took the necessary steps to be compliant and apparently just can’t crack the code that was embedded in my initial notice. It’s also upsetting to receive a letter of this nature on a Thursday afternoon when City Hall is closed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The office of weed abatement will not return your call for at least 48 hours. The problem is compounded with the fact that my lawn is completely dead as the consequence of a sidewalk refurbishment project on my street, which resulted in the contractors tearing out the sprinkler lines in my parkway, rendering my irrigation system non-functional, also necessitating the removal of several trees which were deemed unstable as a result of the contractor’s action. I hope that the powers that be will not only address the issue of weed abatement fees but what I perceive to be a certain ineptitude as to how the weed abatement department handles its affairs.”
In reaction to the public statements, members of the council questioned Hernandez about some of the specific cases and her general representations.
At that point, Hernandez marshaled evidence to support the city’s action, and she offered for public view photos of one specific property that appeared to be a particularly egregious case. Those photos were visible on the video broadcast to the cable subscribers in the city and the one posted on the city’s website.
As Hernandez was subjected to less-than-exacting questioning by the council, discrepancies became apparent between Hernandez’s earlier insistence of a thorough and meticulously documented code enforcement and abatement process and her description of how the process was carried out.
“Do you take a photo of the completion of the project?” Maust asked Hernandez at one point.
“Yes,” said Hernandez.
“So, all the photos we saw tonight are prior,” said Maust. “You also have photos of their completed yards that you could show us?”
“Right,” said Hernandez.
“So, every address that we pulled up that we saw the before [photos], every address you have after [photos]?” Maust asked.
“Not all of them,” Hernandez acknowledged.
“Do you go back to the property after to spot check and say, ‘Okay, they’re clear’ and then you do not photograph it?” Maust asked.
“No, I just put ‘Closed. Complied.’” Hernandez said.
“Is that per our city or your program?” Maust asked.
“Based just on the fact that there is no guideline on that,” Hernandez said. “I would [make a conclusion of] ‘close and complied’ once I saw the violation was taken care. I didn’t take pictures on all of them. On some.”
Hernandez was questioned about the claims that phone calls and emails from those cited were not responded to.
“I do take notes and we have been making phone calls back,” Hernandez said. “Some of the people, we’ve got more than one phone call, a number of phone calls. We were calling every day.
In response to Maust’s request, Hernandez showed notes relating to Mullane’s property, located in the 1100 block of Winston Court. While Hernandez maintained that the notes reflected open communication with the property owner, the notes showed merely that on May 12 Hernandez spoke with the property owner “who advised of progress. Advised will be by Monday to update progress.”
The next entry in Hernandez’s notes on the case is on July 14, one that reads, “Spoke to PO to advise abatement will be done Friday July 15.”
The next notation in the notes, entered on July 16, states, “11XX Winston Court part two of a Batement (sic) trees shrubs against the fence line.”
The next notation, on August 3, states “7/16/2022: Abatement Complete.”
The final entry states, “Abatement Invoice Breakdown: $350 Non compliant administrative fee; $72 Posting administrative fee; $320 Abatement Administrative fee; $10,186.03 Contractor Abatement Cost. Total: $10,928.03”
In Hernandez’s notes with regard to Mullane’s Winston Court property, no substantive exchange nor any type of exchange with Mullane is reflected between the May 12 notation relating to progress having been made and the July 14 advisal to Mullane that a removal of trees and shrubs against the property’s fence line, a job for which the contractor was paid $10,186.03, was to take place the following day.
Dahlquest defended the application of administrative fees and invoicing for the recovery of costs to defray the work of contractors carrying out such abatements, saying, “We’ve been doing this for a long time, almost 40 years. Our department has done it for most of those years, and the last 20 have been with one of the officers that had been doing it. We’ve followed the same process for the most part, using the state law, then of course using the process that has been laid out for quite a long time.”
“I’m not sure how to justly resolve this,” said Councilwoman Janice Elliott. “I think this program is problematic in that there is a lot of personal judgment as to what constitutes blight and what constitutes an actual harmful situation. It would seem like there should be some real clarity on this, but it doesn’t appear that there is at all. There is not in my mind, either. So, I am very concerned about these assessments. I can understand why people would want to have large trees and shrubbery, because that shields your house from the sun, and it is a passive solar cooling. When you don’t have a lawn and you get some weeds that sprout up in the spring, that does happen and as long as they’re not an eyesore and we’ve got the three inches [height limitation], that shouldn’t be a problem. But a number of people said that these weren’t three inches, so, I’m deeply disturbed by this meeting and by these assessments.”
While the council superficially dealt with some of the issues raised by those who had spoken during the public hearing, its members assiduously avoided some of the more pointed criticisms that had been leveled at the city and danced around the assertions by several of the residents that they had not been able to engage with Hernandez and the city to get a clear understanding of what the city considered to be code violations. Nor did the other members of the council make any further exploration of the issues raised by Elliott vis-à-vis whether vegetation that some residents purposefully planted as landscaping could or should be interpreted as weeds, what the proper degree of pruning, trimming and thinning of trees, shrubbery, plants, flowers and vegetation is, or where a property owner’s sense of aesthetics ends and where the proper public definition of aesthetics and safety begins. The council did not want to address head-on the suggestions that in levying the fines, fees and assessments Hernandez had cut corners. Nor was it willing to so much as consider what Bobich and Furness had said directly and which
Maloncon hinted at, which is that the city itself is the most prolific violator of its own codes with regard to the overgrowth of weeds within its borders and that in this way, Hernandez was falling down on the job.
Hernandez endeavored to defend her performance.
She suggested that she had made a straightforward effort to bring those who were not holding the weeds on their properties in check and that those who had been cited were guilty as charged.
“When I started here in Upland and started driving through the neighborhoods, I noticed that about 80 to 85 percent of the properties, they take care of their property,” she said. “They mow their lawn. They keep the trees limbed. They remove the dead material. They do the landscaping and the maintenance. The ones that I actually stopped and took pictures and sent notices were the ones that stood out.”
Still, by Hernandez’s own numbers, that would indicate that some 3,300 to 4,400 of the city’s residential properties were out of compliance. As she had taken action against a mere 290 of those, this suggested the city was engaging in selective or arbitrary enforcement.
Councilman Carlos Garcia hinted at that when he mused about whether the city with its weed abatement program was “going to go straight across the board for everybody. Is it the lack of manpower that we’re not capturing everything? Is it just hit or miss, the luck of the draw?”
Mayor Velto leapt to Hernandez’s defense at that point, saying, “With 22,000 houses, I don’t think you’re going to catch everyone. It’s absolutely a manpower issue in order to get every single property done at the same time and get notices sent out at the exact same time. The process itself is not perfect. We just have to get better each year at doing this.”
Nevertheless, in acknowledging the manpower issue, Velto laid bare the issue surrounding the accusation of misrepresentation that had been leveled at Hernandez.
Initially, she had claimed that every inspection, notice and abatement action was uniformly carried out on every property she encountered, without favoritism or bias.
“It was all the same for every property in Upland,” she said.
But with Velto’s response when Garcia had raised the question of “across-the-board” enforcement, what soon tumbled out was that the process was not uniformly carried out. Hernandez’s claim that she had assiduously paid attention to every case and stayed on top of their details collapsed under her and Dahlquest’s later assertion that the sheer number of weed-overgrown properties were overwhelming and that she was scrambling and struggling in the effort to keep up.
Velto tried to establish that Hernandez used the same protocol with every abatement.
“I saw a picture with one notice on the door,” Velto observed and then asked Hernandez, “Did you take pictures each time?”
“Yes,” Hernandez said.
“So, you have pictures of every one of those that you posted?” Velto asked Hernandez.
“Yes, there were 24 that I had to post,” she replied.
Hernandez quickly qualified that answer.
“Or I had to hand them [out],” she said. “I handed them to the property owner.”
So, you have evidence you posted them on the door?” Velto again inquired.
“Yes,” said Hernandez. “There were only 24 and I went to every one of the doors and spoke to most all of the people and let them know what was going to happen the next – during the weekend – and/or if they weren’t there, I posted it on the door. There were only 24. Not every one of the notices did I post.”
“What do you mean?” Velto, having picked up on the discrepancy, asked.
“Not every single notice that I mailed,” Hernandez said.
“I’m talking about the ones for recovery, said Velto.
“Right,” responded Hernandez.
“You actually did physical work?” Velto asked. “You have evidence – pictures on the door?”
“Yes, I do,” said Hernandez.
Dahlquest endeavored to take the heat off Hernandez, suggesting that the overwhelming nature and sheer volume of the assignment kept her from being as thorough as she had earlier claimed to be.
“Keep in mind there’s 290 properties on this list,” said Dahlquest. “This is basically a part-time program, so we don’t have the manpower to go out and knock on every door. Julie tries to do the best she can. We’re following the same process that we’ve followed for many years.”
Hernandez at one point took a stab at explaining away what had seemed an obvious discrepancy. Some of those who addressed the city council expressed dismay at having been told – by Hernandez – that if they reduced the weeds on their property to a height of three inches or less, they would be deemed to be in compliance. They had cut or mowed the weeds to the indicated level but were still hit with fines and assessments or subject to abatement action by the city’s contractor, they complained.
Hernandez defended the city’s action, saying that abatement in such cases was justifiable because, she said, “The code does not address the height of the vegetation or the weeds.”
With regard to those residents who asserted that they had been cited, fined and assessed for violations on neighboring properties, Hernandez offered that “The Comcate application [i.e., a computerized location finding device] I use to do the inspections, it actually has a GIS function, so that it gives me the location that I’m sitting in front of. Occasionally, because of the Wi-Fi, it would put me off an address, and I did get calls that there were errors on the photos. So, what happened is I had to cancel them, you know, because the wrong picture’s on a notice. That’s something that needs to be addressed later for the next set of inspections, but there were those problems.”
When pressed, Hernandez offered a less than satisfactory explanation of an aspect of the process that had caused tremendous confusion, and which she had previously misrepresented as well. Several residents who spoke Monday night indicated they had been told at one point that the action they took had redressed the problem, only to be informed later that they were being fined and assessed or that abatement of the vegetation on their property was going to occur. This was compounded by the consideration that those residents who did redress the weed growth on their property were never given an official indication that they were no longer on the city’s abatement list. Hernandez said that no explicit city notice of compliance was given to those who had knuckled under to the city’s standards on their property relating to vegetation growth.
“They get that last letter, the invoice letter stating there is a $72 charge,” Hernandez said. “There is no additional letter in between, letting them know they are in compliance.”
Garcia explored that further.
“Is there a follow up… where everything is right completely?” Garcia asked. “Is there a follow up with them?”
“Once I’ve verified that they’ve complied, then I close the case,” Hernandez said. “I don’t mail anything or make a phone call to let the property owner know. I just close the case.”
Dahlquest, who had defended Hernandez’s performance throughout the meeting, insisted at one point, “This is Julie Hernandez and her sister and their company that we’ve hired,” said Dahlquest. “This is their first year. I think they’ve done the best job they could do. We have 22,000 properties in the city, and I think they’ve done a good job.”
Mayor Velto angered a number of people present by insisting that the city stood by Hernandez and was prepared to side with her in any sort of dispute, factual or otherwise, with the city’s residents, despite whatever discrepancies had come to light.
“I’m not faulting what you’re doing,” Velto said to Hernandez, directly. “It’s a process and it’s a process that people don’t like.”
Velto then encouraged his council colleagues to put their faith and the city’s full backing behind Hernandez.
“Remember, this is someone that’s hired by the city,” Velto said, suggesting that gave Hernandez a specialized status which placed her above the city’s residents. “When she tells me she put those on the door, I have to believe her. I have to. I’m sorry. I have to believe her. This is what we hired her to do, to post those notices on the door.”
The city council voted to waive the fines and assessments of up to $422 that had been levied on those who had been cited and penalized for initially being out of compliance but who had eventually redressed the weed issues on their property and did not trigger the city’s employment of its contractor to abate their properties if they were among those who had attended the meeting or had phoned in to the meeting. By the same motion, the city resolved to collect the fines, fees and assessments levied on those who did not attend the meeting, even if they removed the weeds on their property short of the city using its contractor to effectuate the abatements. The city authorized the billing for reimbursement for the cost of using the city’s contractor to abate weeds on any property owner who was cited by Hernandez’s and her sister’s operation.