Rogue code

Valley Hi woman alleges harassment and retaliation by a persistent city code enforcement officer

Jamilla Moore gardens in front of her house in South Sacramento.

Jamilla Moore gardens in front of her house in South Sacramento.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Jamilla Moore spent 20 years as a public defender representing death row inmates before shifting her focus to homeowners facing foreclosure. Now, the retired attorney is in a legal battle with the city of Sacramento about whether a single code enforcement officer is helping her Valley Hi neighborhood—or harassing it.

Moore’s legal dispute with the city’s Department of Community Development dates to late 2017, when she alleged in a lawsuit that the citations she kept getting from one code enforcement officer amounted to “an abuse of power,” “targeted harassment” and “retaliation” by a public official.

Moore has been issued nine citations—several that resulted in fines—by that officer, Angela Haight. But she’s not the only one who’s concerned. At least one other family on Windbreaker Way has received multiple citations from Haight, notices that may enforce the letter of the code over its spirit.

City numbers raise that question, too: An SN&R analysis indicates that, despite a general good appearance, Moore’s neighborhood has seen far more code enforcement activity than several similarly-sized but more affluent neighborhoods.

Internal city emails and court filings show several of Haight’s visits to Moore’s house were initiated by the officer rather than by neighborhood complaints. That’s one of many elements that has given Moore’s landlord pause. Lately, Gregory Leafe has taken to filing public records requests with the city regarding Haight’s tactics and fines. Leafe has paid $1,200 in fines to the city, since he’s liable as the property owner.

The City Attorney’s Office argued in its court filings that Haight was just doing her job.

Moore agreed that enforcing codes against blight is good for neighborhoods. Yet, after spending years working for the District of Columbia before she went to law school, she said the conduct of Haight and her supervisors is backfiring—hurting the very neighborhoods the codes are supposed to uplift.

“I’ve basically been in government all my life, so I have a good sense of how a bureaucracy is supposed to operate in a situation like this,” Moore said. “I just don’t think the staff there is acting in the interest of the community.”

For Moore, the saga started in the fall of 2017. One of her two sedans was parked near her house so that a friend could temporarily park his truck in her driveway. Haight wrote six different citations in a month on Moore’s car for expired tags. Moore said she consulted three police officers and that they told her to park her sedan on her lawn to avoid getting another registration ticket. Moore followed their advice, but Haight wrote her a new ticket, this time for parking on the grass.

Haight wrote more citations. Next, she cited Moore’s other vehicle, an Infinity that was parked in her driveway with its right-facing tires touching the lawn by around 10 inches, according to photographs that the city later provided to Moore and that SN&R reviewed.

Moore eventually bought a different car and the Infinity in her driveway got low-pressure tires from not being used. An avid gardener, Moore decided to try to cover the tires by putting large potted plants with flowers along their sides.

Nonetheless, Haight showed up and wrote her another citation, this time for bringing “blight” to the neighborhood and having “an abandoned vehicle.”

“It could not possibly be an ’abandoned vehicle’ if it is parked in front of the house to which it is registered and where that registered owner lives,” Moore wrote in her lawsuit.

One of the tickets came after Moore filed her lawsuit, which she considered direct retaliation. “She refused to take my phone calls when all this started,” Moore said of Haight. “And it’s just escalated ever since.”

But Moore also acknowledged—and city records confirmed—that she eventually lost her temper with Haight, yelling at the code enforcement officer.

In court filings, the City Attorney’s Office argued that Moore’s lawsuit is an effort to keep Haight from enforcing legitimate codes.

“Such a request is an affront to justice and flies in the face of a city being able to exercise its public powers to keep its neighborhoods free of nuisances and protect public health, safety and welfare,” the city wrote.

But Moore isn’t the only one who questions how Haight exercises her authority.

Marceau Jackson and his family, who live on Windbreaker Way, also had problems with Haight. Jackson said Haight had his sister’s car towed from the street while she was on vacation without warning him or asking him to move it.

“It was fully registered and insured and I’d been driving it while my sister was gone,” Jackson told SN&R. “And Angela Haight had it towed for being parked in one spot for 72 hours, but we got no warning.”

Jackson added, “I understand she has a job to do, but this is overkill.”

Jackson also said someone from city code enforcement spray-painted orange markings on his daughter’s Lexus truck just days after his daughter was the victim of a hit and run. Again, Jackson stressed, there was no warning.

“We’ve tried over and over to wash that paint off, and it’s still there,” he said.

As a landlord, Leafe became concerned about the city’s code enforcement process when he accompanied Moore to an administrative hearing where she protested the citations. That’s where he said he saw a city official whisper into the ear of a contract code enforcement hearing officer, Terry Reed, who ended up siding with the city.

Leafe filed a number of public information requests. SN&R confirmed through city records that Leafe specifically requested all details regarding Reed’s contract as a hearing officer with the city. Officials responded with a one-page City Council agenda from 2011 confirming that Reed had been retained. No financial details were disclosed.

One record the city did provide was a list of rulings Reed made as a hearing officer between 2013 and 2018. The documents identify 44 contested code enforcement cases that came before Reed. He ruled in favor of the petitioner—and against the city—in only four cases. In another 16 cases, Reed reduced, but did not dismiss, the fines.

“My impression is they’re more interested in leveling fines than correcting problems,” Leafe said. “It seems like this is mainly about generating funds.”

He added, “In terms of the transparency, the city has been evasive, at best.”

Another interesting detail that emerged from Leafe’s public information requests: In several of Haight’s visits to Moore’s house, she dispatched herself rather than responding to neighborhood concerns.

In an email Haight sent on April 2, 2018 to a senior code enforcement officer, she stated that while her very first call out to Moore’s house was due to a neighbor complaint, after that she “went pro-active” on the property. The city’s own court filings make no mention of neighborhood complaints in at least three of Haight’s visits.

Moore said she doesn’t know whose complaint started the drama, but she’s since spoken to all of her neighbors and claimed that none consider her property blighted. Moore is so confident that her neighbors haven’t been calling code enforcement that, in her lawsuit, she makes it clear they’re all available to testify.

Emails obtained in Leafe’s public information requests also raise questions about how seriously Haight’s superiors took Moore’s complaints. On Jan. 22, 2018, Brittany Mariscal, a senior code enforcement officer, emailed Haight a one-sentence line with Moore’s street address and the words, “Darn … lol!”

But Moore and Leafe aren’t laughing out loud.

Without commenting directly on Moore’s case, city spokeswoman Kelli Trapani said in general that code enforcement officers try to stick to a professional mission.

“Code Compliance strives to remain consistent in working with our diverse community and achieve voluntary compliance with reported and discovered code violations,” Trapani wrote in a statement. “However, not all violations have the same degree of severity. The intent is to allow the level of enforcement that best fits the type and circumstances of the code violation.”

Moore’s initial lawsuit suggested that the city’s code enforcement fines in her neighborhood are disproportionately aimed at people of color. Moore is currently reviewing a stack of evidence from the city to search for indicators of that trend.

Moore’s diverse neighborhood, which is not blighted, does appear to have a higher level of code enforcement activity than some parts of the city. SN&R compared records from similarly-sized neighborhoods in South Natomas, East Sacramento and the Pocket. Between 2018 and 2019, Moore’s neighborhood had 51 code enforcement cases on 33 properties, South Natomas had 14 cases on 10 properties and both East Sac and the Pocket had no cases.

In April, a superior court judge ruled against Moore because of a procedural error she made filing her suit. Moore has remedied that by filing a government tort claim against the city. If officials don’t address her concerns by late June, Moore can file a lawsuit. At this point, Moore said that’s exactly what she plans to do. She said she wants the entire case to be heard in front of a jury.

“I want other citizens to know their rights,” Moore said, “and to know the ways the city is trying to turn money off the backs of common people.”