How code enforcement became a pawn in neighborhood disputes

This op-ed was published in the Deseret News.

Complaining about one’s neighbors arguably rivals baseball for the top spot as America’s pastime. But when a neighbor anonymously files a formal complaint, city resources can be wasted and city laws weaponized in simple neighborhood disputes.

Some municipalities will accept and investigate completely anonymous ordinance complaints — addressing things like overgrown lawns, aesthetic concerns and excessive noise. Residents reaching out about a perceived problem are not required, in these cases, to disclose their identity.

When anonymous complaints are accepted, the complaint process can be abused by people hoping to wage personal vendettas against their neighbors. With this level of anonymity, there’s no reason not to lodge complaints that are maliciously targeted or that are completely unfounded. Neighbors can repeatedly file frivolous complaints with no record, accountability or consequences.

Imagine that your neighbor across the street has never liked you. You disagree about politics, and they’ve said some disparaging things about your parenting methods. Perhaps one day you have a disagreement and your neighbor leaves in a huff. In some scenarios, that would be the end of it. However, if your neighbor is especially motivated and if your city accepts anonymous complaints, your neighbor could call the city every other day with a new complaint which they have either completely fabricated or merely exaggerated.

These anonymous complaints are problematic. At best, they create inefficiencies in the use of taxpayer dollars and police time, but at their worst, they can facilitate corruption and weaponize law enforcement inappropriately against a resident. Consequently, anonymous complaints against residential property owners should be banned.

The most common objection to doing away with anonymous complaints is the idea that reporting the name of a complainant could provoke a negative reaction and unintentionally facilitate neighborhood disputes. Where that concern may be valid, cities can still collect names, but not necessarily make them public. In these cases complaints need not be anonymous, only confidential — part of a private record not subject to open records requests.

At first glance, this may seem to defeat the point of collecting this information; if no one ever sees the names, why collect them? Even without making any information public, the requirement to record names when complaints are filed still furthers the goal of a transparent, efficient and objective government in several ways.

The process of collecting identifying information creates a sense of accountability for the complainant. If a person knows that when calling to file a complaint they will have to give their name and contact information, the experience is altered. The complainant is forced to consider whether they want to ever be accountable for the complaint. One must consider whether they are sufficiently concerned about the complaint to potentially testify on the issue if it were to escalate into a court hearing. As a result, the inherent accountability created by identification will naturally subdue frivolous complaints. When filing a legitimate complaint, this process should have no impact.

Identifying complainants also makes assessing and addressing complaints easier. Without recording the identity of complainants, it is impossible to determine the credibility of a complaint or conduct any follow up. Collecting names enables officers to identify patterns, whether it be connecting the dots between the dozens of complaints by an overly annoyed resident or identifying an actual neighborhood problem that needs to be addressed. Without anonymous ordinance complaints, code enforcement officers wouldn’t be forced to investigate complaints that can obviously be deemed unfounded or malicious.

With no record of who is making complaints, even government employees can hide behind an anonymous complaint to go after a resident whom they dislike. If they are required to record a name with a complaint, the process cannot be used as easily by those who wish to operate in the shadows.

Banning anonymous complaints is not an earth-shattering change. In fact, some cities already require names to be reported when complaints are filed. This simple procedural requirement will preemptively promote a responsible use of government resources and a system of transparency and accountability. It’s time for anonymous ordinance complaints to be done away with.