For years, Floridians have been filing anonymous complaints against their neighbors, whether it be a noisy party, grass that is too tall, tree limbs that are too low, or a leaf blower that is too loud.
From now on, though, all complainers will need to tie their name and address to their grievance if they want a code enforcement officer to investigate it as a code violation of a local ordinance.
Officers, however, will still have discretion over investigating anonymous complaints they deem to be an “imminent threat to public health, safety, or welfare, or imminent destruction of habitat or sensitive resources.”
These new code enforcement requirements are part of a law that went into effect July 1 after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed two days earlier. The measure was approved by the Legislature in April, and was sold as a way to stop spending taxpayer money to investigate “frivolous” complaints filed by feuding neighbors.
“Our code enforcement resources are scarce in many places and this, I think, will better target and focus complaints on disputes that are legitimate,” said Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, when she first presented the bill in a Senate committee in February.
But some local and state officials, particularly those who live in densely populated urban areas, worry the new law could have an adverse impact on people’s living environments because it has the potential to discourage people from reporting issues that may warrant an investigation.
“It’s going to interfere with the quiet enjoyment of neighborhoods because people may not want to give their name, or may not want to give their address, because of fear of retaliation,” said Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, where nearly half of the complaints come from anonymous sources.
The new law, Gelber said, may also have a “chilling effect” on the type of follow-up code enforcement officers conduct on potential violations because they will need to figure out which complaints amount to a health and safety issue.
The new law does not change how locals should enforce Florida Building Code violations, and anonymous complaints can still be investigated if they pertain to a building inspection and construction issue, Bradley said in an interview Wednesday.
“If someone has an issue with the building code, they will just call the building departments. Totally different from a trash issue or a grass-too-long or noise or parking,” Bradley said. “Separate animals, very different.”
A focus on enforcement discretion
Dario Gonzalez, a code enforcement officer in the Village of Key Biscayne, said there is a “50/50” chance an officer will deem a specific code violation a matter of health and safety based on how a person calls in a complaint and describes the issue.
“They may call and tell me that their neighbor is making noise after hours, but if they tell me they are working on a 12-story building and they are working on floor number seven, drilling and hammering, well, maybe they hit a column or something,” Gonzalez said. “That is the 50/50 chance that I was telling you, and it is up to the discretion of the officer.”
After the deadly collapse of the Surfside condo building, Gonzalez says he will likely be more proactive about deeming anonymous excessive noise complaints health and safety issues if they stem from apartment buildings and involve tools or work done in a unit.
“More now,” he said. “If you told me this last year, I would be like OK, maybe it is just work. But now, I will put some effort and be like OK, I will go there and I will try to make contact with the owner of the unit.”
Bradley said code compliance violation that may put residents at risk should still be investigated even if anonymous.
“Our run of the mill cases need to have someone put their name on it,” Bradley said. “But if it rises to a level of seriousness then we certainly don’t want that to be a reason why a serious matter isn’t brought forward.”
A broken fence around a pool, a “bunch of debris” in an area, or the disposal of hazardous materials into a body of water could all qualify as examples of anonymous complaints that would rise to that “level of seriousness,” she said.
State Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said the new law is another example of an “unwise preemption” passed by the Republican-ledLegislature that limits how local governments decide to best do their jobs.
“Taking away their judgment and substituting it for a flat out prohibition does not mean wise policy to me,” Geller said. “Just as most of these preemptions assume that whoever is making the decision at the state knows better than the people right down on the ground,” Geller said.
Back in February, Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, made a similar point as the measure was vetted by lawmakers. She said she had talked to local officials in her district were unsure what problem the measure aimed to fix.
“They made it clear that while the identity of the complainant can be helpful for context, it ultimately doesn’t interfere with the code inspector’s ability to investigate potential violations,” Cruz said at the time.
Miami Beach Commissioner David Richardson, a former state representative, said he will be monitoring whether the new law will change the number of complaints, to see if any tweaks to the law should be recommended for the upcoming legislative session in January.
Richardson said the city has already turned away some complainers who wanted to remain anonymous since the law went into effect three weeks ago.
Anonymous complainers abound
In Hillsborough County, about 45% of the 35,610 code enforcement complaints filed in 2019 and 2020 were filed anonymously.
County officials said they plan to analyze data from July to try to determine the effect of the new law. But the county expects officers to have more time for proactive enforcement because it anticipates a drop in complaints if people choose not to report because they don’t want to be anonymous.
Miami Beach Code Compliance Director Hernan Cardero said in an email that he doesn’t know if the new law “will have a chilling effect on the reporting of violations,” but inspection data shows that nearly half of the complaints his department received in a recent one-month period were from anonymous sources.
In the town of Surfside, which is still reeling from the June 24 condo collapse that killed at least 98 people, town spokeswoman Malarie Dauginikas said the majority of code investigations are proactive as opposed to complaint-driven so the law is “not really a change to what we’ve been doing.” She estimated that about 10% to 15% of investigations stem from a complaint.
“Our department is very proactive as far as what they do,” Dauginikas said.
In the city of Miami, it’s also rare that an individual wants to be associated with their complaint.
“I would conservatively estimate, based on my experience in multiple jurisdictions, that approximately 80% of all code cases are complaint based, of which the majority were filed anonymously [to avoid retribution],” said Robert Santos-Alborná, Miami’s code compliance director.
Miami Herald reporters Joe Flechas, Samantha J. Gross, Martin Vassolo and Tampa Bay Times reporter C.T. Bowen contributed to this report.