Monday, June 2, 2008 | Each afternoon in the most southwesterly city in the continental United States, a quite fastidious man with a penchant for the rules drives a white truck through neighborhoods and down thoroughfares, his blue eyes darting from strip malls to vacant lots to houses to the beach, hunting for errant signs and abandoned cars and permit-lacking workers on ladders.
When a hair is out of place in Imperial Beach, David Garcias knows, and writes the citation against the person who displaced it. The rules man returns, in 30 minutes or the next day or in a few weeks, to make sure it’s been restored, charging fines when it hasn’t.
Some cities have scores of code enforcement officers with neatly divided jurisdictions: business licenses separate from house additions, junk-filled backyards separate from the oblivious man changing his radiator fluid and letting the fluorescent green liquid flow into the storm drains.
But in Imperial Beach, Garcias is the one full-time code compliance officer, the only one in the city with the power to levy fines. In this usually unperturbed city of fewer than 28,000, such rule enforcement is a relatively new phenomenon. And anonymity is impossible for Garcias, who has largely wrought that change since assuming his post in 2002.
Every city has strict rules about signs, lawns and house sizes — ordinances and zoning rules to keep property values up and to keep the community’s appearance to a standard its residents set.
Garcias’s occupation means he’s the closest shoulder to cry on when a new homeowner is told her third bedroom is an illegally converted garage. He’s the closest ear to scream in when a bar owner is forced to take down an unpermitted sign, the closest face to the bristles end of Maria Zamora’s broom, as she shoos him away from photographing the three abandoned cars, stacks of baby cribs and strollers, 22 tires, TVs, computers, boxes of clothes, cinder blocks and bricks crammed in the backyard of her house on 9th Street.
“Yes, Miss Zamora,” he says. “She hates me.”
In Zamora’s case, fines and notices and requests to clean up her yard last year went unheeded. And so, having done everything he could to compel her, Garcias sought permission from a judge to go on her property to clean it up. In April, he cobbled together a crew of contractors to bring Dumpsters, to clear hazardous waste, to tow and destroy three broken-down cars, to weed out overgrown plants, to dispose of dead rats and “animals galore,” and to remove 12 truckloads of junk and debris. The City Council voted a couple of weeks ago to charge Zamora more than $14,000 for the city’s trouble, a considerable break from the $40,000 in fines she’d accrued from several years’ worth of complaints.
“Even the doghouse was filled with stuff,” he says.
The fines levied, taxes collected, and state reimbursements for abandoned cars garnered by Garcias’s office last year totaled more than $100,000 stemming from about 440 cases. But Garcias traces a larger economic footprint in the coastal city, which has dubbed itself “classic Southern California.”
It’s a city on the verge, a city in the midst of a redevelopment effort. But city leaders believe they won’t be able to magnetize new businesses unless the old ones look good. Because of that redevelopment designation, any new development within the whole city results in a larger than usual portion of the taxes going directly back to improving the area. Without a large sales tax base like other cities have, and without any open space for new development, the city’s financial health has wavered.
Garcias hints that the mantle he now carries was not always a job performed with vehemence in the laidback coastal town.
“I think it’s a combination of, it’s a smaller town and the fact there really wasn’t enforcement before,” he says. “And the rules are being enforced now because the city really needs to develop.”
But that Garcias plays a key role in keeping IB on track to redevelop doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“You have people who remember the old days and you have the new homeowners who are saying, ‘I want the Starbucks, I want the new restaurants,’” he says. “I think the city’s right at a tipping point right now.”
And Garcias has attracted controversy for his stubborn, unswerving attachment to the rules. The protest, “But that’s how we’ve always done it,” carries no water with this man.
“Well, this is the way we do it now,” he says.
He’s not fazed by the names he’s been called, from “Nazi” to “communist” to a selective harasser of businesses. He withstood a City Council meeting where a regular from a bar Garcias was investigating stood up and yelled, “David Garcias! Everybody hates you! You need to get out of town!”
Even now, the Chula Vista resident admits, there are some restaurants he no longer visits in case a grudge might be carried out right on his plate.
“Time heals most wounds,” he says.
In this city, Garcias knows the alleys and main roads, the houses and apartment buildings. Tell him an address and he can tell you if he’s been there, maybe what color the building is or who lives there. On his inspection tour one recent afternoon, he drives into the parking lot of the boarded-up motel where HBO’s “John from Cincinnati” was filmed, where a “slumlord” once allowed drug addicts and prostitutes to squat. He passes the street stand where the eccentric donut-makers hawk their pastries, down the alleys where he’s weeded tenants out of illegal garage conversions over the years.
He points out the park. He once settled an argument there between the girls’ softball league and the boys’ baseball league over whose sport took priority. For that, he pulled up the park benefactor’s will in microfiche, finding the space had been bequeathed to the entire city with no gender or version of the American pastime specified.
He passes a strip mall and — aha! — spots an rainbow-colored sign in front of a check-cashing store that has not been approved. He whips into a parking space. Garcias, dressed in a beige polo shirt and navy pants, attaches his city badge to his belt and strides into the business to speak with the manager. He’s with the city, he tells the man, and the sign has to come out. He leaves him with a business card and a timeline: he’ll be back in 30 minutes to make sure the sign is gone. It is.
Garcias is the president of the group for code enforcers in San Diego County. They have luncheons and e-mail each other for advice. For his job, he’s taken classes in municipal code interpretation, in “verbal judo,” and in the psychology behind hoarding or being a pack-rat. The last one has lent him some understanding of the motivations for some of the folks he has to fine.
“It’s not that they’re doing it to spite the city or something,” he says. “They can’t control themselves.”
Dilapidated houses, unlicensed businesses, roof signs and inhabited garages are the contraband Garcias roots out now. But that wasn’t the case for his entire career. As a military policeman in the U.S. Army, Garcias was stationed in Germany in the 1980s. He spent two years as an undercover drug cop on a 10-man team, buying and busting sellers of cocaine and LSD and marijuana and hashish, carrying five or six different IDs through a dozen cities around Germany while the military paid for his car, his clothes and his drinks on the job, he says. Once he was threatened with a knife.
Exiting the military in 1987, he started working as a campus police officer at the University of California, San Diego, mostly on the night shift. But after 14 years, working nights clashed with his role as a single parent of a teenage daughter. So Garcias applied for an open job as a code enforcement officer in Imperial Beach. He started in January 2002.
A first generation American, Garcias was born in Chula Vista to a Mexican mother and a Spanish father. He and his wife had divorced before she passed away in 1998. His daughter, Maria, is a good kid, he says, a hockey player who will graduate high school this month. He says he feels like he’s at the end of a long race. He hopes to take her to Germany for a graduation gift.
“Once in a blue moon, she’ll say, ‘I love you, Dad,’” he says. “And you have to live for those moments.”
Garcias says he’ll continue to enforce the rules in Imperial Beach, watching the city as it creeps toward renaissance.