NEIGHBORHOOD SNOOPS; VOLUNTEERS TO HELP INSPECTORS ENFORCE HEALTH, SAFETY CODES.
On their daily walks, Arthur Howard and his wife have made it their business to remove illegally posted leaflets and signs that scar their neighborhood in Studio City.
Now, Howard is on his way to becoming a bona fide, certified Los Angeles city snooper - the latest recruit in the fight against blight, overflowing trash, weed-strewn lots and other unsightly and unhealthy intrusions in the City of Angels.
It's all part of the new Neighborhood Codewatch Program, which expects to deploy its first volunteers next month to help overworked inspectors track down violations in the city's health and safety code - from illegal signs to cars parked on lawns, overgrown vegetation and general blight on property.
Howard enlisted as a volunteer, despite what he said was the concern of some people that volunteers are nothing but neighborhood snoops.
But that's not the case, he insisted.
These resident inspectors wouldn't be allowed to patrol their own neighborhoods, they wouldn't be allowed to enter private property and wouldn't be empowered to issue citations and confront violators.
What they would be allowed to do is send warning letters.
``I think the program is really set up well, where we're not going to be trained to be roaring vigilantes, said Howard, 63. ``There are no confrontations, there's no fights. We're not stepping onto property, but letting people know about things.''
Volunteers are being screened carefully to weed out any potential vigilantes or mal-intentioned residents, said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Laura Chick, who proposed the program.
``It's being made clear to people so if somebody is mean-spirited and vengeful they will be removed from the program. What we are getting is people who care about their city, and they realize this has to be done in all neighborhoods,'' Chick said.
With 30 volunteers and counting, Chick said she expects they'll be trained and ready to hit the streets of Reseda, Van Nuys and Woodland Hills by early August.
``We've always relied on our citizens to be our eyes and ears. Now we're relying on them to be that much more,'' Chick said.
Anyone interested in volunteering should call Neighborhood Codewatch at (213) 847-CODE or toll free at (888) CARE-4-LA.
Thousands of nuisance complaints pour into the city every year - the Building and Safety Department alone receives 70,000 calls annually. But Chick said that inspectors are too busy focusing on housing conditions, construction and other areas to spend enough time handling lesser code violations.
``This is a way to improve neighborhoods and the quality of life because it's exactly these code violations that start to drag a neighborhood down,'' Chick said.
By car and on foot, volunteers will be paired up to scout for the violations, but they won't take the place of the city's code inspectors and won't be empowered to cite violators. Instead, volunteers would send a violator a notice detailing the problem, explaining how to fix it, what penalties they might face and the date of a follow-up inspection.
``This is a friendly way of saying: Here is a problem, we hope you'll help us solve the problem,'' said Karen Wagener, executive director of the Los Angeles Volunteer Bureau, which is coordinating the program. ``The volunteers will never approach anyone directly because that might not be safe.''
Chick said her inspiration for Neighborhood Codewatch came from a similar program in San Diego, where in 75 percent of the cases would-be violators cleaned up their act once they were notified by resident inspectors. ``When you start to have visible signs of deterioration where things are starting to decay, very often the next thing to come is crime,'' Chick said.
So far 30 volunteers have signed up to take part in newly forming pilot programs for five City Council districts, including two in the San Fernando Valley.
The enlistees include Carol Levin, who remembers when she worked as a tour-bus guide and spent her days extolling the beauty of Los Angeles - the city of her birth, the city she loved. But then she began hearing tourists complain about the trash and filth.
And she took it personally.
``I've basically watched the city deteriorate physically,'' said the Woodland Hills resident. ``One time I drove down Wilshire Boulevard and there was an abandoned couch in the street. It got me down. Wilshire Boulevard is our showcase, it's our Fifth Avenue.''
So when the 60-year-old Levin heard that the city was training volunteers to be the eyes and ears for city inspectors, she was among the first to sign up.
Bruce Fane has no complaints about his Encino neighborhood, but that didn't stop him from pitching in to help his surrounding communities - Van Nuys, Reseda and Woodland Hills.
``In those neighborhoods that are affected by code violations, the program is very important,'' said the 61-year-old Fane, who volunteered after reading of the program in the newspaper. ``It seems like a positive program to make people aware of code violations and allow them to correct them without penalty.''
PHOTO Neighborhood Codewatch volunteers like Bruce Fane of Encino will be on the lookout for overgrown vegetation and other code violations.
Myung J. Chun/Daily News