New law makes anonymous code enforcement complaints a thing of the past

There are two sides of the coin when it comes to anonymity, especially regarding code compliance complaints.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed into law a requirement that all code enforcement reports would need to include a complainant’s name, address and phone number when filing a complaint to the enforcement agency. Taking it a step further, the new law — Senate Bill 60 — prohibits code inspectors from initiating investigations of potential code violations by way of anonymous complaints.

There are some exceptions to the removal of anonymity, including violations that “present an imminent threat to public health, safety or welfare.”

It’s like filing a complaint with your local authorities that your neighbor hasn’t mowed his grass in awhile or has a boat parked in the driveway for a few weeks. Ratting on your neighbor — especially when they find out who tattled — could have neighborly consequences.

Sort of like the saying, “snitches get stitches.”

But in the case of code enforcement, when it comes to buildings, high-rises, condos and apartments, maybe anonymous complaints serve a purpose. Who would have known about the crack in one of the garages at The Towers on Key Biscayne, had it not been for an anonymous TikTok video? Fortunately, in that case, it was simply ruled as an expansion joint.

“My only concern (with this new law) is that it potentially chills people from reporting things that they otherwise might report,” said Village of Key Biscayne Mayor Mike Davey. “I understand the intent is to save money for less resources being used by local governments. But I don’t know what the (long-range) impact will be.

“As lay people, we don’t necessarily know if it’s a safety threat or not. I guess anyone can say it’s an imminent threat. I’d rather have a concerned citizen report it, and I would allow for it to be anonymous. But that’s the law.”

The new law comes on the heels of the June 24 Champlain Towers building collapse in Surfside, about 20 miles north of Key Biscayne, although legislation for this bill originated in January, long before the tragic event. But, high volumes of code complaints — anonymous or not — have been in place for many years.

According to CBS12 News in Palm Beach County, for example, nearly 10,000 tips are called into the Palm Beach County Code Enforcement Office each year, with some “80 percent probably anonymous,” according to Code Enforcement Manager Rick Torrance.

KB was a “complaint-driven community”

Key Biscayne Code Enforcement Officer Dario Gonzalez said when he came on board two years ago, the Village was a “complaint-driven community.”

Now, he said, “Our department is proactive, patrolling the streets constantly, even after hours, to do inspections. We’ll put a door-handle flyer (with the violation noted) ... it’s a very friendly approach.”

It seems to have worked. Complaints to his office in the Building, Zoning and Planning Department average about six a month now, and maybe one or two of those are from anonymous callers, he said.

“It’s not much of an impact here,” Gonzalez said, regarding anonymity. “Most of the complainants leave their phone number because they want to hear what the outcome is.”

If anonymous complaints are no longer allowed, Gonzalez said we can expect a potential reduction of complaints since people would likely be reluctant to provide personal information.

However, he noted that one complaint can lead to other discoveries of violations or hazards.

“Lately, all the complaints (since Surfside) are unsafe concerns, like ‘I saw a little crack.’ But most of our calls deal with permits or if trash didn’t get picked up. That sort of thing,” he said.

Now, Gonzalez and his department have to determine if a complaint is deemed a “life safety threat” before proceeding with an inspection.

In the case of the recent TikTok video showing what looked like a threatening crack in The

Aim is to save money

Towers garage, Gonzalez said by the time he arrived at work, there were 200 calls waiting.

Lawmakers were hopeful the new legislation would save counties and cities money in the long run as fewer nuisance complaints would have to be handled by building departments and the focus would turn to those with imminent problems.

The bill passed the House with an 81-35 vote and cleared the Senate by a 27-11 margin.

Here is the operative language from the statute:

“A person designated as a code inspector may not initiate an investigation of a potential violation of a duly enacted code or ordinance by way of an anonymous complaint. A person who reports a potential violation of a code or an ordinance must provide his or her name and address to the governing body of the respective board of county commissioners before an investigation occurs. This paragraph does not apply if the person designated as a code inspector has reason to believe that the violation presents an imminent threat to public health, safety, or welfare or imminent destruction of habitat or sensitive resources.”

How future complaints are filed and handled are anyone’s guess.

“I don’t know how this plays out,” Mayor Davey said. “If people in their own building are afraid to (speak up). ... Personally, I think we should all be safer than sorry. You don’t want to see something bad happen because someone was afraid to report it.”

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