March 6, 2014

Atwater considers new graffiti ordinance

A proposed change to the city of Atwater’s graffiti ordinance could mean property owners will be forced to pay for its removal, a move city officials say will help get rid of graffiti more quickly.

A proposed change to the city of Atwater’s graffiti ordinance could mean property owners will be forced to pay for its removal, a move city officials say will help get rid of graffiti more quickly.

The ordinance revisions were discussed at a City Council meeting last month, though no action was taken. If approved, commercial and residential property owners would be given three days to remove graffiti on their property before the city would have the authority to enter and remove it.

The city would then charge the property owner for the abatement costs, according to the proposed ordinance. Property owners would receive an administrative citation, starting at $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second offense and $150 for the third offense.

“The main gist of this ordinance is to allow the city to take care of matters as quickly as possible,” said Atwater police Lt. Sam Joseph. “The city was having trouble enforcing the previous ordinance, and our hands were tied because the ordinance wasn’t clear about the process.”

Joseph said the city has identified options for property owners genuinely struggling to pay for graffiti removal.

According to the ordinance, the city manager may waive removal costs if the owners agree to assign their victims’ rights to the city. By doing so, the city can seek restitution costs if the vandal is caught, he said.

In nearly 15 years as the city of Atwater’s code enforcement officer, Mike Teater has issued only four citations – but that doesn’t mean he isn’t making progress in cleaning up the city’s image, he said.

“My goal is to not issue a citation and (instead) have voluntary compliance,” Teater said. “We strive for 100 percent voluntary compliance. I don’t want to have to take people to court or issue a citation.”

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Teater scoured the city streets and alleys in search of graffiti and other infractions. Before long, he stopped his truck in front of a small business that’s been a repeated target for taggers.

Teater said he paid a visit to the store last week to speak to the owners about removing the graffiti, but it hasn’t happened. On Thursday, he gave them another friendly reminder and shared ideas for preventing graffiti, such as adding plants, installing lights or cameras.

“It will happen; it’s just been raining,” Rafael Guzman, co-owner of Broadway Market on Atwater Boulevard, told Teater about painting over the graffiti. “I’ll do it tomorrow if it doesn’t rain.”

Guzman said he’s not happy about having to pay for the removal costs, especially because the graffiti was there before he moved in, but he’ll comply with the city’s policy.

“It’s frustrating for everyone and it makes the building look ghetto,” he said, adding that more police presence in that area might help. “I just hope they don’t tag anything else.”

Atwater Mayor Pro Tem Craig Mooneyham said he spearheaded the effort to make changes to the city’s graffiti ordinance after seeing a huge rise in tagging last summer.

“It was far more graffiti than I have seen in the last 40 years,” Mooneyham said. “The most frustrating part is, it remained for a long period of time. The new ordinance clearly defines time frames for removal of graffiti, and the penalties of not doing so in a timely manner.”

But another member of the City Council said he believes the new ordinance is too hard on the victims of graffiti vandalism.

“The city needs to keep in mind these are the victims; they’re not the perpetrators,” said Councilman Jeff Rivero, adding that three days is not enough time for people to remove the graffiti. “We have senior citizens and other residents that will need help with the removal of the graffiti.”

Rivero said the City Council should identify organizations to help with removal costs for those who can’t afford it. “I think that should be in place as we approve the ordinance, instead of kicking the can down the road,” he said.

Teater said he’ll do his best to work with property owners facing financial difficulties. “I understand there’s a financial plight,” he said. “But when people come into Atwater, they don’t want to be greeted by graffiti. I will go the extra mile to exercise other resources to assist in the removal of graffiti.”

The ordinance will be discussed again during a City Council meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. on March 24 at the council chambers, 750 Bellevue Road, Atwater.

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