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City revisits contract for weed abatement

DEL MAR — Whoever said you can’t fight city hall has obviously never spent time in Del Mar.
Council members authorized an agreement that would have allowed a private company to provide a year-round weed abatement program. But after residents expressed various concerns about Fire Protection Services Inc., the city held a public workshop and then adopted a different program two months later.
On Aug. 2, Fire Marshal Robert Scott presented three options for weed abatement to decrease the risk from fires caused by overgrown or dead vegetation. His department recommended using Fire Protection Services because it would provide a consistent, year-round program requiring minimal staff time at essentially no cost to the city.
The company, used by 10 local cities including Encinitas and Oceanside, would get paid by billing property owners for forced abatement.
Many residents said this presented a possible conflict of interest.
“Who wants to voluntarily put themselves in a situation where we’re having people come onto our property who don’t get paid unless they find fault?” asked resident Charlie Curry.
“No credible threat justifies a bounty hunter for brush abatement,” John Haraden said.
After reviewing their initial decision, council members agreed the contract could be problematic.
“If you pay somebody to inspect something that they will then turn around and abate …… and get paid for it, there is no way to avoid at least the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if there isn’t one,” Mayor Richard Earnest said.
Residents said an Internet search also revealed some negative reports about Fire Protection Services.
In 2004, Fallbrook terminated its contract with FPS after receiving complaints about possible conflict of interest and poor customer service.
According to a 2008 story in the San Diego Reader, “the company was overzealously harassing people in the backcountry,” and in May 2007, “the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection wrote to San Diego County concerning complaints it was receiving” about FPS.
“The letter suggested Fire Prevention Services may have been misrepresenting the law and requiring landowners to do environmental damage,” the article stated.
“There are some reasons for concern about FPS,” Councilman Don Mosier said.
But not all residents were opposed to the program presented in August. “I’d like to express my strong support for Del Mar’s plan to reduce fire hazards,” Chris Ludlow, who lives in a high-risk fire zone, wrote in an e-mail.
Frank Chisari suggested in an e-mail that the city contract with FPS for inspections and another contractor to do the work.
The fire marshal said his experience working with FPS has been positive and he has seen no evidence of conflict of interest, especially since he grants final approval, based on written documentation and photographs, for forced abatement.
He also said no one is allowed to trespass on private property to conduct inspections.
The San Diego Better Business Bureau, according to its website, “has processed no customer complaints on this company in its three year reporting period.”
Council members ultimately opted to move forward with a plan to hire a temporary seasonal inspector between April and August who would be employed by the city and work under the fire marshal. Again, no one would be allowed trespass on private property to conduct an inspection and all forced abatement must be approved by the fire marshal.
This type of program, which is used in Carlsbad, would cost Del Mar an estimated $7,500, which is available due to an estimated $20,000 savings from a recent reduction in the fire services contract, the city manager said.
“This is a really minor cost for the level of protection I think we would achieve,” Mosier said.
He said given the city’s “very small, geographically unique setting with a lot of vegetation and a lot of sense of community,” this alternative seemed to be the best option.
“I think a more personal touch for this kind of program is absolutely essential,” he said, adding that the job would be difficult for someone who doesn’t know the history of Del Mar and its unique vegetation.
“I think fire protection is very important,” he said. “I think the way you do it has to be sensitive to the unique character of Del Mar and to our unique populous.”
In a related move, council members adopted a code amendment that gives the city the authority to abate a nuisance after sufficient notices have been sent and the owner disregards them “for no good reason,” Scott said.
The new ordinance, which is consistent with state laws, also allows the city to notify the county assessor if a property has been abated so a lien can be placed on the tax bill and the city can recoup the abatement cost.
The law also declares it a misdemeanor for property owners to allow the existence of a public nuisance on their property by permitting a fire hazard to remain.