A bill targeting the problematic practice of anonymous code complaints advanced in the House Tuesday morning, though not without debate and a key change in language.
The House Local Administration & Veterans Affairs Subcommittee advanced by a 13-4 vote HB 883 from Palm City Republican Rep. Toby Overdorf.
The bill would require those making code complaints with counties or cities to identify themselves.
Overdorf said the legislation would block investigation of an “alleged violation” of code. The goal: to block “frivolous or unfounded complaints” or “being a ‘pawn’ in community disputes.”
Overdorf added a strike-all amendment aligning the bill with the current Senate version carried by Fleming Island Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley, allowing for investigations of anonymous complaints when public safety or other imminent concerns are in play.
Exposed wiring in public places, downed fences by retention ponds, and other situations meeting the “clear and present danger” threshold could still be revealed via anonymous complaints under the bill.
Overdorf stressed that when there is “concrete evidence” and when health and safety is threatened, an anonymous complaint will still suffice.
The legislator also noted, during debate, that municipalities have wide latitude regarding both defining code infractions and what an “imminent threat” to health, safety, and the environment might be. As well, it would take a public records request to get the name of a complainant even in a non-anonymous situation.
Even fellow Republicans had questions in debate. Vice Chair David Smith wondered, given the exceptions, what the bill would do. Overdorf said that the principal application was to “everyday code violations.” However, legislators pressed, with concerns about “fear and retribution” abounding.
Others contended that disgruntled neighbors or former employees have been known to use anonymous complaints as a cudgel against those who operate home businesses.
Rep. Dotie Joseph, a South Florida Democrat, noted that a complaint against a local drug dealer may exemplify a situation in which someone might fear blowback for exposure of identity.
She suggested withdrawing the “overbroad” bill in light of a potential “chilling effect,” but that’s not likely.
Rep. Dan Daley, another Democrat from South Florida, expressed bipartisan support for the measure, which has two committee stops remaining.
The House committee analysis of the legislation does not predict fiscal impact should the Overdorf bill become law.
The committee analysis of the Senate companion, meanwhile, is more optimistic, citing a positive effect from a “reduction of complaints” that could lead to “less resources being utilized by local code enforcement.”
The Senate version heads to its final committee stop, Rules, on Thursday morning.