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Valley Interview : City Uses License Revocation Steps to Deal With Public Nuisances

It looks like one of those routine city notices that are even less interesting than junk mail. But toss it in the waste basket and it could cost you your business.

The notices are part of the city of Los Angeles’ revocation process--a costly, growing strategy that can demand that the owners of businesses deemed “public nuisances” get involved in preventing illegal activities on their property.

That could mean hiring security guards, putting in new lighting, walls, fences or even closing during certain hours. Failure to clean up the problem can prompt city zoning officials to revoke business licenses.

In March, city zoning officials imposed 27 conditions against five Van Nuys motels deemed magnets for prostitution and other crime. A decision on a doughnut shop and a coin laundry facility in the same area of Sepulveda Boulevard is pending.

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City of Los Angeles Chief Zoning Administrator Robert Janovici recently talked with Times correspondent Jeff Schnaufer to explain how the process works.

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Question: Who initiates this process?

Answer: Typically either the police, community groups or a (City) Council office bring an issue to our attention in writing. We don’t take phone calls. It has to be something that can be documented. So, for instance, an individual letter by one person wouldn’t necessarily trigger a review without cooperation from police or a council office. What we want to make sure is that it’s not just a battle between two neighbors. That it’s a community problem. This includes litter, loitering, narcotics sales, public urination, drinking in public, prostitution, and various other items that are nuisance activities.

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Q. Once this process has been initiated, how do you evaluate the complaints about the business?

A: Unless we’ve initially got the letter or the report from police, well ask for that, if we haven’t got it already. If the council office has a history of complaints coming in, we’ll ask for documentation of that. We would also look for either a large number of individual letters or a petition signed by a large number of neighbors. There’s an evaluation made from all these sources as to whether there really is a problem there that we would be able to deal with.

Q. What kind of police data does this include?

A. We request a PACMUS report, a formal report that gives by address site-specific police response.

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Q. And what does that reveal?

A. What it reveals is by address what police involvement was necessary. It might be anything from concealed weapon, assault, robbery, drug transaction, public inebriation--a whole slew of things. It gives you a short summary of what the police record (said) happened at that location over whatever period of time you requested.

Q. Does the PACMUS reveal who made the call? Whether the call for help came from that location, like a manager trying to get rid of the problem?

A. In the police record, if you go to the original sources, it may indicate it there.

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Q. Do you go to the original sources?

A. No. Not in terms of determining where there is a basis to go further. That’s why we hold a public hearing.

Q. What happens at the hearing?

A. Notification of the hearing is mailed to the lessee or the owner of the property, as well as neighbors. We take testimony and we allow any person who is part of the proceedings to testify, to make their best case. Then you issue a decision where conditions may be recommended, it gets appealed or not, and the conditions are imposed. Then the places need to be looked at to see how the conditions worked. Whether we put them out of business by revoking their business license, we don’t know initially. We don’t revoke the first time out. There is a review period after the conditions are imposed. If they meet the conditions and the conditions abate the nuisances, they are fine.

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Q. How many revocation hearings are held yearly in the Valley and in Los Angeles?

A. I cannot tell you how many are done in the Valley. Up until 1989, we would engage in maybe one or two revocation/nuisance abatement cases per year. They were pretty rare. They involved everything from houses of worship to parking lots to other types of uses that we had originally approved. In 1989 and 1990, we did somewhere in the neighborhood of seven to 15 sites per year. In the last two to three years, we’ve been doing somewhere between 40 and 50 individual sites citywide per year. In terms of the total number of establishments that have gone out of business, because of what we’ve done directly or indirectly, that’s about a dozen citywide, since 1989.

Q. Why do you think the increase has been there?

A. All these cases typically are appealed. They’re getting exposure at the Board of Zoning appeals level and the City Council level. As the council people see a particular problem be dealt with in somebody else’s district, they realize the process can be used to deal with problems in their district.

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Q. How successful has it been?

A. We would assume by the fact that we don’t hear back from the community that there was in fact a successful procedure involved. Because we know we would be hearing from them if it wasn’t successful.

Q. Some people say they already pay their taxes to pay for police, so why should they be burdened by the city to hire security?

A. They’re putting an extra burden with the city in terms of police resources. In addition, the motels or the doughnut shop or whoever it is, they’re activities that bring about substantial time in terms of our staff, conducting investigations, long arduous public hearings, going to appeals. Our objective is not to put them out of business, but to have them operate in a way that the nuisance-like conditions are going to be abated.

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Q. But some businesses, at least those in the Sepulveda Boulevard motel situation, were initially charged more than $4,000 to reimburse the city for the revocation investigation. Does it really cost that much money?

A. We’ve found that by and large the amount of time we put in is substantially the same as the time we would spend on a conditional use permit. On the other hand, what’s the cost to the neighbors who live nearby who have to put up with what’s going on with these sites? Certainly, business owners could volunteer ways to deal with this at the initial onset of the process. Normally, people don’t offer up on their own ways to solve the problems. Unfortunately, most people come in and say it’s beyond their control. If there’s some alternative way to deal with the problems, that’s fine with us.

Q. Isn’t there a potential for abuse? For example, targeting businesses in certain neighborhoods just because they happen to be motels?

A. We target businesses because they are the source of nuisances, wherever they may be. We’ve reviewed houses of worship. Plus, there’s a lot of safeguards built into the system. No. 1, a single source does not trigger the process. Then there are two levels of appeal that exist. In addition, there’s a final decision made even after the facts are assembled.

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Q. Have there been any legal challenges outside the normal city channels?

A. There have been some legal challenges as far as the liquor stores in South-Central Los Angeles, and so far the city has prevailed in every one of those.

Q. Let’s talk a moment about the Chateau Motel on Sepulveda Boulevard, one of the five motels that had 27 conditions imposed against it by the city. It shut down shortly after the city’s decision. Now some residents and police fear it could become a worse problem. Does the city have any enforcement program to keep these businesses that close, either directly or indirectly because of the revocation process, from becoming a greater nuisance?

A. We haven’t really directly dealt with that issue yet. To my knowledge, this is the only one at this point where there hasn’t been another business that has come in to replace them.

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Q. What can a business do to avoid the whole process?

A. They know if they have problems. The first thing I would do is go to the Police Department, who would be more than happy to advise them what they can do.

Q. Where do you see the revocation process in the future?

A. We deal with probably only a fraction of the problem sites in the city. What we’re hoping is that, by word getting out about our activities, that people will get a handle on the problems on their own and will self-police and really become more responsible owners.

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