Michael Amaya, Burien’s new code enforcement officer, is not only new to the City of Burien, but also to the Pacific Northwest.
Before moving to the area, he lived in Illinois, where he worked for a county health department as an environmental health practitioner. He did everything from inspecting wells and septic systems to responding to nuisance complaints and food safety issues. He has a degree in public health with an emphasis in environment and health.
This public health background was good preparation for his current role enforcing Burien health and safety codes.
“Ultimately code violations pose a health or environmental risk,” said Amaya. “My education plays a role in how I approach things. I try to educate the individuals on why I’m citing them. For example, oils from an abandoned car can leak into the ground and contaminate groundwater, harming the environment.”
When Burien incorporated in 1993, with approximately 20,000 residents, the City had one code enforcement officer. In 2021, with more than 52,000 people, there is still only one code enforcement officer. This results in a backlog of complaints and the need to exercise discretion in determining priority and whether to enforce in every instance.
“I would like to investigate every violation or compliant, but those that present potential health hazards are my first priority,” said Amaya.
When asked about how one person manages so many cases, Amaya emphasized that collaboration is key.
“Our goal is to reduce harm,” said Amaya. “I work closely with our human services manager, Recology, as well as the community development, police, and fire departments to find the best solution for the case. I approach each case with empathy and try to find a solution that makes sense for the property owners.”
After a code violation is reported, Amaya works to triage those cases that present the most immediate health risk or that harm the larger community. Unfortunately, some complaints are made by neighbors that simply do not like each other. Amaya tries to ensure that the code enforcement process is not used to control, harass, or annoy a neighbor.
When he goes out to investigate a code violation, Amaya starts with an honest conversation with the individual before issuing a notice of violation.
“Let’s say I find someone has a rooster, which aren’t allowed in city limits. I give them the opportunity to remove the rooster within a week, or whatever time frame sounds reasonable. If they say they can remove the rooster within the week, I check back to see if it’s been done. If it’s any longer, I issue a notice of violation.”
Amaya began working with the City at the end of April of 2021 and since that time has resolved approximately 50 code violations.
When he works with tenants and property owners, “I talk to them like we are on equal ground,” said Amaya. “I was talking to someone recently and he was giving me hiking advice. Taking that step, to understand their position, and building a collaborative relationship is how I approach the work.”
Amaya appreciates the hiking advice and, more importantly, the property owner’s willingness to work toward resolving the code violation.
Amaya prefers resolving code violations through a “voluntary correction agreement”. These are developed by having the tenant or property owner develop a plan, which is then presented to the City. If the City accepts the plan, then the person implements the plan, resolving the code violation.
Currently, Amaya is working with his colleagues to examine trends in past code violations to see if there are legislative solutions for addressing persistent issues. For example, there seems to be a correlation between individuals not having trash service and certain code violations. This is part of a holistic approach to code compliance that a city with not enough staff must take.
“When it comes to code compliance, we try to merge enforcing the code with having a relationship with people in the community,” said Amaya. “Educating individuals, communication, and giving people the opportunity to fix violations. Punishment is not the objective but is sometimes necessary.”
Code Enforcement 101
The Burien Municipal Code is the collection of ordinances (laws) that have been adopted by your city council. There are also state statutes and county ordinances. Some things that appear to be code violations are private property disputes that are best resolved by neighbors through alternative dispute resolution or court.
City of Burien’s Code Enforcement Officer helps enforce Burien’s ordinances related to rubbish and trash, outdoor storage, parking of vehicles on private property, unsecured structures, dilapidated structures, business licenses, sign codes, and other ordinances targeted at improving the quality of life in Burien. The City of Burien manages code enforcement issues through a complaint-generated system. If you would like to report an issue, you can file a complaint online at burienwa.gov/report or fill out a Code Complaint form at Burien City Hall.