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Globe: Bylaw scofflaws beware: There's a new licensing chief in town


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Apr 22, 2007
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From the Globe:

Bylaw scofflaws beware: There's a new licensing chief in town



July 19, 2008

On a Scarborough street notorious for illegal business activities, it was the flashy new BMW that stood out among the beat-up cars at an auto repair shop.

That sighting by a sharp-eyed bylaw official was one of many reasons the city's municipal licensing and standards (MLS) department spearheaded a high-profile crackdown on Crockford Boulevard last week.

Lost in the drama of the day - police arrested three people and city officials laid a fistful of charges for bylaw infractions on zoning, absence of business licences and garbage on private property, among others - was what the sweep signalled for a long-criticized city department and its new executive director, Jim Hart.

"If we can target enforcement and make some change in a neighbourhood or street, that will go a lot further than if we target a business on a street," he says. "If we make a change to a street, people will notice and the word will get out that we care about neighbourhoods."

In a big departure from the department's old strategy, Mr. Hart now expects to carry out one big blitz a month, up from about four a year.

The new strategy thrills local Councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre), who regularly fields complaints about Crockford, a short street squeezed between a residential neighbourhood and Massey Creek, near Warden and Lawrence avenues.

On the day of the July 9 sweep, as Toronto police and department officials wrapped up a long day's work in 29-degree heat, the councillor praised the new approach. "It was executed absolutely perfectly," he said. "We need to send a signal and a message that we are no longer going to tolerate illegal activities."

The blitz was a rare victory for a department struggling to recoup its reputation.

In 2005, the city fired department head Pam Coburn and a deputy after a probe of questionable hiring practices. She was replaced by former Guelph police chief Lenna Bradburn, who left in April to join the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.

The choice of Mr. Hart is no accident. "He has a definite focus on customer service and results," says his boss, deputy city manager Richard Butts.

Mr. Hart, only weeks into his new post, is eager to boost morale among the 380 employees, fill many of the 44 vacancies and sharpen the track record of a department responsible for issuing and enforcing business licences, right-of-way permits, signs, garage sales and property standards.

This year, the department aims to issue 50 per cent of new business licences in 20 working days, up from 37.3 per cent in 2006. The ultimate goal is to hit the 20-day target 90 per cent of the time.

Another goal, which Mr. Hart hopes to achieve in the next 12 months, is to serve residents lining up for a permit or licence in 15 minutes or less 85 per cent of the time, up from 34 per cent in 2007.

The Crockford crackdown, with 30 bylaw inspectors and a dozen police officers, helps the department pack a bigger punch.

In the past, suspicions about a high-end car parked with beat-up vehicles at 92 Crockford might have sparked a probe of one business. In this case, the inspector returned to spot what looked like the same vehicle, eviscerated for parts.

Officials chose to bide their time to inspect a street zoned for industrial activities like manufacturing, but dotted with illegal garages, muffler shops and spray booths.

The decision paid off.

At 92 Crockford, after an initial inspection by department officers, Toronto police moved in to arrest three people on charges of stolen cars, breach of animal welfare (two beefy guard dogs were removed) and suspicions of a marijuana grow-op.

At three other addresses, city inspectors laid 26 charges against auto firms for breaking business-licence and zoning bylaws. Another five received notices to clear away junked cars and debris on their lots.

All day long, city-hired tow trucks roared up and down the street, eventually hauling away 28 scrap vehicles that included a banged-up former CBC van, its back axle frozen in place.

Other contractors removed an estimated 20 tonnes of garbage, from rotted mattresses stacked in a derelict truck to building materials dumped on the public right-of-way.

But at 117 Crockford, no one is happy. Brothers Thesi and Mathy Rajanayagam, with no licence to operate their auto-body and spray booth, pleaded frantically with department officers not to tow bashed-up cars with no plates from the rear of the building.

MLS officers had issued several verbal warnings in recent weeks, but in late June sent a registered letter giving the brothers six days to clean up.

"I say to them give us one more day, I can clean up all the stuff," Thesi Rajanayagam said. "I didn't get the letter, I didn't get the letter."

The registered letter, slow in coming from Canada Post, arrived the day of the blitz.

Given the past warnings, the department and police officials were unmoved as they waited for animal-control services to take away two scraggly but ferocious-sounding guard dogs chained at the back lot.

The co-ordinated show of force did not go unnoticed.

At Paul Davis Systems, a property-restoration firm on a manicured lot at the south end of Crockford, chief operating officer Stephen Robinson said, "Already some people comment that, driving down the street, they did not think it was the same street."

He praised the blitz but wonders about its lasting value. "It's like grow-ops," he said. "They come and bust one and five more pop up."

For Mr. Hart, it's a start. "We don't have the resources to do enforcement across the city," he said. "The more compliance we get, ... the fewer resources we need and the better city we have at the end of the day."

A fine, encouraging article, and one after my own heart. I am currently engaging in something of a sustained campaign of by-law enforcement warfare in my neighbourhood, in the sense that I have been combing over the Municipal Code, and sundry other by-laws, getting the names and contact information of by-law enforcement officers provided by (an admittedly shamed and worn-down-by-my -correspondence) Councillor Walker, and demanding clean-ups of every single property in my area that has even one "tag" smeared on it, or properties that are litter strewn, and anything else I and my camera can document (including parks department properties). So far, so good. That's what these people are there for, and I'll be damned if they don't earn their salary in the name of maintaining some semblance of order in this city.