There isn’t a week goes by that councillors don’t talk about bylaw officers — whether there are enough of them (there never are), how hard they’re working, how many tickets they’re issuing, and during the pandemic, sometimes, how badly they’re treated.
In a tourist town such as Niagara-on-the-Lake, just writing parking tickets could keep a small complement of bylaw officers busy, but add to that a new parks bylaw, trees, noise and short-term rental issues, and they are extra busy during the tourism season.
Craig Larmour, director of planning, oversees the bylaw enforcement department.
He says although there are specific shifts and duties laid out, they are flexible, especially at this time of year, and even more so during a pandemic, when there are more complaints and more restrictions to enforce.
At the moment the town is attempting to hire an enforcement officer. There are two year-round enforcers, one of them for parking, and four seasonal parking officers, as well as one seasonal bylaw officer. And there is one full-time position designated as an urban forestry officer to deal with the tree bylaw, but who can also help out with other duties.
That person, Larmour says, “can be all over the place.”
The year-round officers are experienced, and can also help out wherever needed, he says.
Shifts are staggered, with hours covered seven days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 12 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
There is also some parking enforcement 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday to Friday.
During the pandemic, parking officers help out by responding to COVID-19 related complaints over the weekend, in addition to their regular duties.
“Because of COVID,” says Larmour, “these days, it’s all hands on deck. COVID has totally complicated everything. Parking officers help out in parks, with COVID complaints, and with complaints about short-term rentals.”
And they still manage to hand out an impressive number of parking tickets each week, which add to the town’s revenue and help offset taxes.
Many of the seasonal bylaw employees return during multiple summers, and most are interested in a career in law enforcement. They have a background in police education, having gone to Niagara College or some other enforcement course, and then also receive some training from the town, shadowing the more experienced officers.
When it comes to complaints, the first approach is always looking for voluntary compliance rather than ticketing, which creates animosity, says Larmour.
“We assume most people are not educated about our bylaws and COVID restrictions,” and once they’re explained, people are usually willing to comply, he says.
Often officers will respond to a complaint such as more than five people gathering, and it’s just a couple of groups of friends who have run into each other and stop to chat.
“The officer talks to them, and they move on,” he says, “at least for the most part.”
But there are also situations where people flaunt the rules. They don’t agree with them, they don’t feel they have to comply, “or they are just sick and tired of COVID.”
Recently bylaw officers have reported instances of people spitting on them or swearing at them, “but it doesn’t happen often,” says Larmour. And when it does, it may be because the person is under far more stress than is being created by the bylaw officer.
“The vast majority of people are polite and respectful. They might be frustrated about being ticketed, but they’re still polite.”
While COVID restrictions bring the most complaints, the new ban on barbecues in town parks is also keeping officers busy. Most people aren’t aware of the ban and behave respectfully when it’s explained to them, packing up and moving on, although one person recently set the grass on fire instead, which was quickly extinguished.
Most of the seasonal bylaw officers find their work rewarding, and will return each year, at least until they’re finished their schooling, says Larmour.
“Most of them like being here, and find it a great opportunity to get some experience before moving along. Some officers experience some crazy situations that are not the norm, but it’s very occasionally, and it’s just part of the job.”
Ben Hopkins, supervisor of enforcement services, says he’s grateful to work alongside a group of dedicated bylaw and parking enforcement staff. “This is a group of staff who are committed and strive to complete their work well,” he says.
“In addition to their typical responsibilities, officers have worked tirelessly over the last year.” They’ve responded to more than 6,000 concerns related to the enforcement of the provincial COVID-19 regulations, “a difficult task that I appreciate and respect more each day.”
CAO Marnie Cluckie is also pleased and proud of the bylaw staff during a difficult time.
“I feel incredibly fortunate that Niagara-on-the-Lake has a good team of bylaw enforcement and parking officers. The team works hard to support the community and respond to bylaw inquiries and complaints,” says Cluckie.
“In addition to their regular duties, they have effectively and respectively taken on enforcement duties related to provincial orders and regulations, with great professionalism and courtesy. Their job certainly is not easy, but they work hard, and I am so proud of the entire team.”