Imagine a department established to protect Gainesville residents and their property. Its employees wear guns and badges; they write citations.
If a Gainesville Police officer comes to mind, think again.
Instead of driving around in a Crown Victoria, you’ll find these armed guards of the city’s ordinances, the Gainesville city marshals, in a big white "pick-em-up" truck, as Debbie Jones, Gainesville’s chief marshal calls it.
The department polices the gamut of city ordinances, from compliance with the city’s International Property Maintenance Code to ensuring business owners pay their taxes.
The go-to enforcement for nasty neighbors who refuse to cut their lawns or get rid of an old junker, the city’s marshals job is to make sure Gainesville residents mind their P’s and Q’s when it comes down to the legal technicalities of being a good neighbor.
From collecting fees to digging in the trash
Marshals have white-collar duties like collecting fees for alcoholic beverage licenses and inspecting taxicabs, but sometimes, the job gets dirty. When business owners complain that city residents are unloading their household garbage in commercial bins, the marshals must do a little Dumpster diving to find out who is to blame for illegal dumping.
"We’ll go over there and dig through the trash and find litter or whatever’s in there with a name on it and make contact with that person," Jones said.
Jones knows many convenience store and package store owners by their first names, having spent hours with each one on their licensing applications and store inspections. In one Southside store, Jones is greeted cheerfully by the store’s owner, who offers a free drink to his guest after she inspects his beer coolers and walls for proper storage and license displays.
"I’ve met a lot of really nice people doing this," said Jones, a seven-year veteran of the department.
But as relationships with enforcement
officials tend to go, not everybody’s glad to see them when they come. Residents and business owners in Gainesville have written complaints and voiced their concerns to the City Council about the way the city marshals do business, alleging that deputy marshals have been overzealous, rude and intimidating.
Fighting back with pink paint
Months ago, after feeling like marshal’s office employees were picking on him, Rick Gailey, owner of Pepper’s Market and other buildings at 624 E.E. Butler Parkway, painted his building hot pink with a lime green stripe. When the city marshals sent Gailey a letter in August, telling him he had to repaint his brown and yellow buildings, replace the gutters and fix other structural problems, Gailey shot back the only way he knew how.
"The city forced me to do what I done, and I went and done what they asked me to do," Gailey said in October.
"They pick on people like me and poor folks," Gailey said.
Jones stands by the fact that the department does not pick on specific individuals. She said the city marshals hold everyone to the same standard. Each of the five code enforcement officers under her are assigned one of the city’s wards, and do regular patrols. If the office receives a significant amount of complaints on a certain street, the code enforcement officers will conduct a "sweep" of the area, checking every house on the street for code compliance.
In the past 12 months, the marshal’s office has written at least 191 citations, according to a report Jones provided to The Times. Of those citations, 108 were written in Gainesville’s Ward 3, which encompasses the area of the city south of Jesse Jewell Parkway and east of Queen City Parkway.
Another Gainesville resident also has called the police about the behavior of one of the city marshals.
In January, Harold Hinchman, owner of the Agora House for Men, filed a report with city police that one of the marshals, Gary Kansky, was going through his mailbox. The group home for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts has been cited by the marshal’s office for operating on Ivey Terrace without the necessary permits.
Kansky had been looking through Hinchman’s mailbox to see if Hinchman was still operating a recovery house illegally, Jones said.
Hinchman complained to city officials, and the city responded that they would conduct an internal investigation of Kansky.
But nothing ever came of that investigation, Assistant City Manager Kip Padgett said.
"That (investigation) was unfounded; (Kansky) did not violate anything. ... He was not taking anything. He was not conducting an illegal search," Jones said.
No one took action against Kansky, because what he did was perfectly legal, Jones said. Jones said she checked with the U.S. Postal Service Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the postal service, and officials there told her that it is legal for law enforcement officers go through someone’s mailbox as part of an investigation.
"I’ve done it," Jones said. "I wouldn’t dare do anything I thought was illegal."
Marshal’s office has its share of critics
But more recently, Frank Norton, owner of the Norton Agency, says it is "coffee talk" throughout town with his tenants as well as his personal and business friends that city marshals are overdoing it.
"While I believe in public safety, I think there are some extremes. There seems to be a stepped up effort," Norton said in late March.
Norton says his recent experiences with deputy marshals are not good ones, and says the marshals’ demeanor could be bad for Gainesville business.
"They’re going to dissuade people from doing business in Gainesville," Norton said. "Gainesville’s a wonderful place to live, a wonderful place to work, but the more roadblocks they put up for small, medium and large businesses ... it does not become a good place to try to grow and build your business."
Norton said he does not understand why the city marshals need firearms.
"There is concern with the power of the marshal’s office," Norton said. "I think people are afraid; why do we have gun-toting marshals?"
Jones answers that all the city’s deputy marshals with their Peace Officer Standards and Training certifications have the power to arrest residents.
There are times when vacant buildings have people living in them and the marshals would want the guns with them when they have to go in and clear the building, Jones said.
"You never know what’s in there," Jones said.
Marshals in other cities don’t carry guns
Other code enforcement officials in Athens-Clarke County, Whitfield County and the cities of Rome and Dalton said they do not feel the need to carry guns.
John Spagna, Athens-Clarke County’s division administrator for the county’s Community Protection Division, says his code enforcement officers do not carry guns; instead, they call the police department for back up if it is needed.
"That different approach seems to work for us here," Spagna said.
Spagna’s division of code enforcement has eight code enforcement officers assigned to districts, as in Gainesville. But Athens-Clarke’s Community Protection Division differs from Gainesville’s in other ways. Athens-Clarke leaves alcoholic beverage licensing up to the police department, unlike Gainesville.
Howard Gibson, the Chief Building Official for Rome-Floyd County’s code enforcement division, also leaves alcoholic beverage licensing to the police department. Instead, his division focuses on property maintenance, and, like Gainesville, follows the guidelines of the International Property Maintenance Code.
In addition, Rome and Floyd County have consolidated the department for consistent enforcement. All 11 employees in Rome-Floyd County’s Building Inspection and Code Enforcement department are authorized to enforce city and county codes, but only three are fully dedicated to code enforcement, Gibson said.
And although some of Rome’s code enforcement officers have their Peace Officer Standards and Training certifications like their Gainesville counterparts, they do not feel the need to carry a gun.
"I might shoot myself in the foot like Barney (Fife)!" Gibson said. "It’s just something we’ve never done."
"I’ve been in areas that we have carried guns; it really seems like it intimidates people and you start out on a bad foot to start with," Gibson said. "Instead, we usually use the approach of ‘we need your help.’"
Like Spagna’s code enforcement officers in Athens-Clarke, Gibson said if there might be a problem, then the officers will ask police officers to join them. For extra precaution, the code enforcement officers in Rome usually travel together.
In Dalton-Whitfield County, government officials are also considering combining the code enforcement division for more "consistency," said Greg Williams, Dalton’s building official.
Right now, Dalton and the county government each have one person dedicated to code enforcement. Dalton’s population is similar to Gainesville’s.
Dalton’s code enforcement official also has his Peace Officer Standards and Training certificate, but he does not carry a gun, Williams said.
"In the past, we had officers that wore a full uniform and would carry a gun, but we didn’t have a whole lot of cooperation with people opening the door," Williams said. "They feel a lot more comfortable if it’s someone in plainclothes."
But Jones said she is glad she has her gun with her, and it has made her more comfortable before.
"I don’t want to say I ever needed it, but I was awfully glad I had it," Jones said.
Norton said he has been bothered by the city marshals office ever since two deputy marshals walked into his Green Street office and bypassed a secretary to tell one of the real estate agents that the balloons on the company’s sign were against city code.
"It scared her; she thought something maybe was wrong with her children or her husband when she’s on the phone and all of a sudden there’s two armed guards in her office," Norton said.
Jones said she was not aware of the specific event, but said Kansky is a longtime Gainesville resident and it would not be uncommon for him to go straight to a person he knows in an office.
Norton, who did not know which deputy marshals came to his office, still does not approve.
"I just don’t think that’s appropriate. ... It’s insensitive, it’s inappropriate and there’s a better way of doing it — it’s called a telephone."
Norton sent a letter to city officials in February, asking for an apology. He said he has not received an apology from the city.
Jones said most of the time, code enforcement is not a big deal, and it does not cause a lot of problems. The department’s stance is to educate first, and only give a citation when a resident has been given a reasonable amount of time to comply with the violation, and most times, that is not a problem, Jones said.
Jones likens those who have a problem with the city’s code enforcement officers to people who become angry at a police officer after receiving a speeding ticket.
"People don’t like to be told ‘you’re wrong’ or that they need to correct something," Jones said.
And Jones contends that the marshals’ job is good for business in a city like Gainesville where homes are older and fall out of compliance as years pass.
"Its just good business to have an attractive town; (to attract business) it needs to be appealing," Jones said.