‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’

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Code enforcement on portable classrooms in question

DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester has raised questions about code enforcement on school property following the installation of portable classrooms at Dunwoody High School.

 Jester posted concerns on her blog on April 12, approximately one week after DeKalb County School District (DCSD) placed modular classrooms on school property.

 The post contends—citing a 2002 Georgia Court of Appeals case—that the city of Dunwoody, along with other DeKalb County municipalities, have a say in enforcing city ordinances and codes relating to permitting, plumbing, building, electrical, land disturbance, storm water and more.

 The 2002 ruling stated county governments are exempt from zoning laws—as long as they are able to perform a function such as education or government—but not from city ordinances dealing with code enforcement. According to its summary, the ruling was made to protect cities from legal liability.

 Jester summarized her concerns in an email sent to Dunwoody city council, requesting they “enforce these supplementary powers on the recent activity that has taken place at Dunwoody High School” and provide her with accompanying documentation.

 Jester also released details of an email sent to a Dunwoody Chamber of Commerce member from a Dunwoody city councilman. According to Jester, the email states the city has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to code enforcement.

 Jester detailed an April 9 conversation via Facebook with Dunwoody councilman Terry Nall who contended the school district is exempt from city code. Nall said DCSD is exempt from city government but not from state or federal authorities.

 “DCSD isn’t exempt from complying with applicable building codes, life safety reviews, etc. As a separate, sovereign government, they have a number of ways to accomplish it without necessarily coming through the city,” Nall said. “DCSD is exempt from city-specific rules, but not rules of higher government, such as state or [federal government]. DCSD is considered a local governing authority.”

 On April 18, following pressure in the wake of Jester’s blog post, Dunwoody city spokesman Bob Mullen andDCSD officials stated city and school district staff will meet before April 21 to clarify who has the authority to enforce ordinances on school property.

 City officials from Clarkston, another DeKalb County city with their own code enforcement division, said they would only enforce municipal ordinances as a last resort.

 “I’m a big proponent of the age-old adage, ‘You get more flies with honey than vinegar,’” said Mayor Ted Terry. “There may be mechanisms to act, but generally speaking, that seems like a last resort, not usually an opening offer.”

 That should not suggest cities do not have the power to act, according to Terry. He referenced a nuisance abatement law, which he said isused by most municipal code enforcement departments to pass ordinances relating to issues raised by Jester.

 He said ordinances have been formed under the nuisance abatement that would allow a city to repair a property and put a lien on it, if the property is out of compliance by posing a serious health or environmental risk to residents.

 Terry was unsure if such ordinances extend over other governments, but said city officials should have a good line of communication with other governing bodies should conflicting issues arise.

 Clarkston city councilman Mario Williams said he would also only resort to code enforcement if contacting school officials proved to be unfruitful. He, too, was unsure whether cities have the authority to enforce code on governing bodies.

 DCSD schools in Clarkston include Indian Creek Elementary, Clarkston High School and Jolly Elementary—each currently features at least two portable classrooms.

 The school district has plans to utilize several recently purchased trailers in the wake of its $500 million E-SPLOST capital improvement plan. Among other projects, the plan hopes to address overcrowding in Region 1 of DCSD, which includes Dunwoody High School. 


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