Bylaw and order: Northeastern Ontario’s struggle with enforcement

Sault Ste. Marie has received nearly 900 bylaw-related calls since September — but it has only two bylaw officers on staff
By Nick Dunne - Published on Dec 06, 2019
Sault Ste. Marie city council has established a task force to examine the bylaw department. (Nick Dunne)

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SAULT STE. MARIE — “This one’s not too bad for a Monday,” says Freddie Pozzebon, chief building official for the City of Sault Ste. Marie, as he eyes the day’s schedule for the bylaw enforcers he oversees.

At city hall on November 25, there are 17 complaints to respond to and 10 follow-up calls to make. A broken culver hasn’t been fixed yet, and someone’s neighbour still hasn’t cleared a festering pile of trash from their front lawn. “Municipalities create these bylaws to have a better quality of life, and if they’re just ignored, that quality of life erodes,” says Pozzebon.

In Sault Ste. Marie, a shortage of bylaw officers has hindered enforcement efforts, he suggests. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bylaws the municipality has that they just don’t have the time to look at.”

Three staffers are responsible for approving building plans, and five inspectors review homes and commercial properties to ensure they are up to code upon completion. But everything else bylaw-related in the city of 73,000 falls on the shoulders of two men: bylaw officers Tyler Bertand and Brant Coulter. Since September 10, the pair has dealt with 891 calls. Last year, before the city doubled its number of bylaw officers by hiring Coulter this year, Bertrand handled 922 complaints.

The bylaws Bertrand and Coulter enforce cover a broad range of regulations, from signage and garbage collection, to parks and sewers. They can also be oddly specific and idiosyncratic. Throwing snowballs — or any other “dangerous missile”— on the street or in public places is prohibited (bylaw 2008-131, section 12). Feeding pigeons is another no-no (bylaw 2005-37) — that is, unless you are “a member in good standing with the Canadian Pigeon Racing Union.” Those under the age of 16 require adult supervision when walking through a cemetery (bylaw 2012-129, section 6.5). Section two of bylaw 4100, a standard noise bylaw, shows its age by making exemptions for “a newsboy, peddler, hawker or any petty tradesman plying his calling legitimately and moderately.”

There’s at least one constant when it comes to enforcing bylaws in Sault Ste. Marie. “Even when I did it myself when I was a building inspector, it was always overwhelming,” recalls Pozzebon, describing the role he had with the city about 30 years ago. But he remembers it as anything but monotonous. “There’s just tons of stories,” he says. “People were, at one point, doing a lot of home repairs, and we would get calls about people draining their oil right into the ditch.”

The process of dealing with a single yard complaint, among the most common sort of call the department fields, can take between 24 and 26 days, and, for larger yards, 35 to 36 days, according to a report presented to Sault Ste. Marie council. Time must be allotted for compliance, multiple warnings, and possible court challenges. This, on top of a daily barrage of calls, keeps the department busy. Officers are largely relegated to responding to calls; they’re not able to take a more proactive approach, which could involve doing sweeps of neighbourhoods to check for possible red flags: a rusting car in the yard or a leaky roof, perhaps.

Pozzebon says that his department is more short-staffed than most; after getting numerous complaints from irate residents, city council established a task force to examine the bylaw department. When council asked for quicker timelines on complaints, the issue of staffing became apparent — hence Coulter’s arrival this year.

Councillor Luke Dufour says that the additional officer has given the department more room to follow through with complaints and to help enforce more complicated matters: “When you’re getting into out-of-town investment companies that own rooming houses, and stuff like that, it’s a bit more complex of a problem to tackle. It’s going to suck up more time of your staff. As a city councillor, you have to decide if you’re going to be willing to fund success or not.”

Dufour also noted that a report from the task force, expected to be brought to council in the first half of 2020, will determine whether further action is necessary, but he has been pleased so far with the improvements to the department’s level of service.

Sault Ste. Marie isn’t the only community in the region struggling to keep on top of complaints. In North Bay, a city of more than 50,000, Ron Melnyk is the lone bylaw officer. Proper staffing is the key to maintaining consistent enforcement, he says, noting that, when he’s on vacation, there’s no full-time bylaw officer to cover his absence.

Bylaw enforcement is integral to public safety, he says, citing North Bay’s rental-licensing bylaw. A landlord with three tenants or more in a building must be licensed by the city to ensure that basic safety levels are met. Licensing includes registration and inspection, which is why some landlords avoid the process altogether. “A typical person that comes into town to rent a room is just going to assume it’s safe enough … or they’re not going to be too concerned with it cause they’re happy to have a space to rent,” says Melnyk. “But there might be some subpar living conditions.”

The challenge, though, is finding out whether a home is contravening any bylaws; it’s not always obvious, for example, that a home has been divided into multiple units. And, when there is a host of other, more pressing complaints on the schedule, it can be hard to enforce such a bylaw.

Bill Bond, president of the Municipal Law Enforcement Officers’ Association of Ontario, notes that determining whether a city is short-staffed comes down to more than considering the number of bylaw officers relative to a given population. “The nature and scope of bylaws will differ from municipality to municipality,” Bond explains. “Each municipality needs to make their own assessment as to whether their staffing levels adequately reflect their community needs and priorities.”

As for the common misconception that bylaw enforcement is about lining city coffers, Melnyk says “Most times, it’s work to get compliance or hiring a contractor to get compliance. The end result isn’t bringing money to municipalities; it’s the community being happy because that one yard down the road isn’t loaded with burnt old cars on the front lawn.”

Melnyk says that, generally, people are respectful — and compliant: “You don’t need to know most bylaws to realize whether you’re following the rules, because, for the most part, it’s a matter of common sense. For instance, you know you shouldn’t dump your camper’s sewer down the storm drain.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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