City Life: City could benefit from more efficiency

Ask 10 people to describe or define the word "business" and several of them are likely to have strong negative thoughts.

Those perceptions have fogged the concept of running any city more like a business, which is an ongoing discussion topic in Costa Mesa.

The benefits of running a city more like a business can be summarized in this true story.

Last February, I received an envelope from the Building Safety Division of the city of Costa Mesa. Inside were the following:

1) A cover letter explaining that our home was showing some deteriorating paint and was in violation of a section of the city's municipal code;

2) A brochure explaining the city's code enforcement policy;

3) A copy of the citation;

4) Two photographs of the parts of our house showing the deteriorated paint;

5) A return envelope, the purpose of which was not identified in the letter or anywhere else.

Before continuing, please note: First, I was clearly in violation of the code and my son and I happily repaired the two areas in question and filed the necessary paperwork to avoid paying a $150 fine.

Second, I support the code enforcement program. Many years ago, I lived not too far from a man whose front yard looked more like a junkyard, and I realized back then the need for the city to be vigilant.

Third, my contact at the code enforcement department was courteous and helpful.

The package I received is an example of why Costa Mesa should be run more like a business, of how unchecked processes can exist in government for years without someone, somewhere, saying, "Is there a better way to do this?"

In the case of my citation, yes, there is clearly a better way.

The citation was generated by a code enforcement officer driving through our neighborhood while on a call to investigate another violation.

So far, so good.

Next, the officer took out a camera and snapped at least two photos of our property and wrote up a citation.

Back at the city office, the photos were uploaded from the camera to a computer and printed. The cover letter was generated and assembled with the citation, brochure, photos and return envelope and inserted into a larger envelope that was run through the postage meter and put in the U.S. mail for delivery.

Some may recognize the inefficiency of this system. And some recognize that current technology could easily make this process far more efficient, thus reducing costs, and saving taxpayers' hard-earned money.

Successful businesses are always seeking ways to streamline and become more efficient. Without continuous improvement, they will cease to exist. In this case, a successful business would have emailed everything and provided online response instructions, which I gladly would have done had that option been available.

This labor-intensive process is just a small example of how all government should be looking for ways to improve efficiency to save money. And let's be clear about one thing: The code enforcement process is not the problem; it is a symptom.

Many cities could benefit from being run more like a business, but not completely like a business. Big difference.

Costa Mesa can start by utilizing existing easy technology to start communicating more efficiently with residents in matters such as code violations and other routine city matters.

The city should start an opt-in email database to help reduce or eliminate waste. I'd also like to see an opt-in text messaging program similar to the one at UC Irvine, which two years ago alerted my daughter to a possible armed intruder on campus.

I'm volunteering to opt-in first.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer.

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