OIG Audit of the Department of Law Finds Months-Long Delays in Providing Notice of Sanitation Code Violations Due to Errors in Property Ownership Data and Backlogs of Violations

The City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG) has completed an audit of the Department of Law’s (DOL) process for notifying people of sanitation code violations cited by the Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS), such as overflowing garbage containers or uncut weeds, which finds that DOL took an average of 289 days—more than 9 months—after a violation date to issue a notice. These long delays have the potential to affect health and safety, take property owners by surprise, make it difficult to rebut allegations about one’s property, and lead to a loss of revenue for the City.

OIG’s audit found that notices for 87% of the 101,729 alleged sanitation code violations issued in 2016 and 2017 were sent at least six months after the violation, while 23.8% of notices took a year or more. Fewer than 2% of notifications were sent within one month of a violation. While the process took an average of only six days once staff began work on a violation, the large backlog meant that many sat untouched for months. DOL prioritizes the accuracy of ownership verification and the strength of cases against alleged violators over the speed of notification. But DSS has stated that substantially quicker notifications would best support its goal of citing violations and getting property owners to promptly correct the problem.

OIG recommended that DOL work with DSS to set targets for a maximum number of days from violation to notifications, as well as develop, document, and implement processes to meet an agreed upon goal. We also recommended solutions to address untouched and incoming violations to remedy the backlog, additional temporary or seasonal staff, and performance monitoring by management. DOL disagreed with the recommendations and disputed the notion that a fixed time period between violation and notice is “reasonable, appropriate, or even operationally feasible” because too many variables are beyond the Department’s control.

“Any system that results in it routinely taking many months, let alone over a year, to send a citation for overflowing garbage containers or overgrown weeds is, on its face, in need of a hard reset,” stated Inspector General Joe Ferguson. “These delays increase the burden on Streets and Sanitation and waste taxpayer money, mowing lots multiple times—at additional taxpayer expense and diversion of department resources needed to attend to other responsibilities—before a property owner even receives the first ticket. While the Department of Law has worked recently to reduce delays, it fails to acknowledge that there remains substantial room for improvement; or that it is even reasonable to set a goal for how soon tickets should be sent after a violation is observed, such as the 60-day goal suggested last year by aldermen who often bear the brunt of complaints of procedural unfairness from constituents, and which data from other municipalities suggests is achievable. We strongly urge the Department to re-examine our recommendations for improving operations in order to further avoid health and safety hazards and reduce the financial and operational burdens of the current regimen.”

The full report can be found online at OIG’s website: bit.ly/DOLNotices

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The mission of the independent and non-partisan City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG) is to promote economy, effectiveness, efficiency, and integrity by identifying corruption, waste, and mismanagement in City government. OIG is a watchdog for the taxpayers of the City and has jurisdiction to conduct investigations and audits into most aspects of City government. If you see corruption, fraud, or waste of any kind, we need to hear from you. For more information, visit our website at: www.igchicago.org.