Couple: City Retaliated With Code Inspection

Homeowners Kristin (left) and Richard Cheney stand on their property on Dec. 3 near a back house where Richard was detained by South Pasadena Police in February. They say the city is using code enforcement to silence them for going public about the incident. Photo by Skye Hannah

A South Pasadena husband and wife are seeking answers after alleging the city “weaponized” code enforcement against them for having a camper parked in their driveway — in retaliation, they say, for the couple going public on social media about a February incident at their home and later making a public-records request for police body-camera footage of the episode.

It’s the second such allegation in South Pas in two months in which a resident is claiming the city retaliated with a code-enforcement inspection following a resident’s dispute with the city. In October, Alison Smith’s Hanscom Drive home was subjected to an intense code-compliance inspection, soon after she complained in public that the city was to blame for a sewage spill in her backyard.

City officials flatly denied any retaliation was at play in the Smith case. City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe did not respond to an email or a phone message seeking comment on the more recent allegation.

In this latest instance, as reported last week in the Review, Richard and Kristin Cheney of Fairview Avenue are seeking body-camera footage from an interaction Feb. 14 in which officers responded to a 911 call and mistook Richard for a burglar while he was making repairs to his own roof. After the Cheneys made a complaint to the department, alleging illegal detention and disrespectful conduct by Corporal Joseph Johnson and Officer Carlos Pech, an internal investigation was conducted.

According to the Cheneys, Sgt. Jim Valencia verbally informed them in March that he looked into audio and video footage available from the incident and reported that the cameras of Johnson and Pech, who spoke to the Cheneys and detained Richard, were turned off at the time of the interaction on their property. Only body-camera footage from supporting officers on the street were turned on at the time, they said they were told.

In identical letters to the Cheneys on Sept. 3, Police Chief Joe Ortiz told them that while the investigation found that disrespectful conduct from Johnson and Pech did occur, illegal detention was unfounded.

In an interview with the Review, the Cheneys said they were frustrated that it wasn’t clear the officers were disciplined and they felt the situation was treated dismissively.

“I think that anything we do can always be done better,” Ortiz — who was not yet running the department back in February — told the Review. “I think we took this incident very seriously.’’

In October, Richard decided to go public on the incident by posting to the app NextDoor and Facebook after he learned about Smith’s interaction with the city.

When Smith’s home was searched Oct. 10 on a warrant for code violations in regard to alleged unpermitted construction following what the city said was an anonymous complaint, Richard said he was “incensed” at how the city treated her. Smith previously told  the Review that she felt she was “being bullied” by the city.

“I was just horrified at what they did to her,” said Richard.

The Cheneys decided to put in a public-records request Oct. 22 for the names of all officers at the Feb. 14 incident, copies of their body camera footage, copies of the 911 call from the neighbor that sparked the response and any correspondence within the city related to the incident. They haven’t received a response from SPPD since an automated confirmation of their request an hour after they entered it.

Then, on Oct. 24, they said the city’s code-enforcement officer, Gus Alonso, came to their door. He said he had received an anonymous complaint from a neighbor the previous day that they were illegally storing a camper in their driveway and advertising it for rent. They were informed that if they did not remove the camper by Dec. 12, they would be charged $500.

The Cheneys said that while they did have the camper listed on a home-sharing site to “season it,” it was not open for renting and no one had ever stayed in it. A public-records request they made for correspondence of Alonso’s communication with the city showed that he received an email from Planning Division Management Intern Aneli Gonzalez on Oct. 23, informing him that “a resident called in” about an RV parked in the front yard and being rented out. Gonzalez said they also provided a link of an advertisement for it, and requested he look into it.

This Wednesday, Director of Planning and Building Joanna Hankamer, who oversees code enforcement, told the Review that residents can have campers on their property only “as long as they are in a garage.”

“A camper, if it wants to be stored on-site … they’re not allowed in the driveway or on the street, for example,” said Hankamer. “It really needs to be hidden from view, essentially.”

She added that “If [a camper] is in a driveway, storage just means parked. A camper is not allowed to be parked or stored in the driveway, in really a time frame of overnight.”

Hankamer said there is one “pretty narrow” exception, and if that’s used by family members while the camper is parked. According to city code, family members are allowed to stay in the camper for no longer than five days per month, and no short-term rental to non-family members is allowed.

When asked how code enforcement complaints are prioritized, she said that “it’s sort of a first come, first served. We address code complaints as they come in, unless there’s some health or safety risk that’s identified, in which of course we’d prioritize that.”

The Cheneys said they were left feeling blindsided by the city and are seeking resolution and accountability.

“When you go online, post stuff and two days later, code enforcement shows up at your door just like they did to [Alison Smith], there’s something very wrong with the system,” said Richard. “And then when other people online who said they’ve been putting in a complaint to code enforcement for years or months, no one’s ever come out, but for us they come out 24 hours after the anonymous complaint …”

Said Kristin: “I take that as retribution, like, ‘Shut up, we don’t want you speaking out.’ ’’