Getting creative about a city code in Brooklyn Park

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2014 - 6:10 PM

Brooklyn Park has released a video to help citizens avoid common code violations.

A new video from Brooklyn Park aims to inform people about the city’s codes, especially those that tend to generate the most citations.

The five-minute video, titled “Know the Code,” centers on a friendly back-and-forth between a homeowner and a city inspector. They discuss city codes pertaining to home maintenance, pets, trash, vehicles and lawn care, with one house serving as a model.

Actor Linda Riegger had no trouble stepping into the city inspector role, because that’s her regular job in Brooklyn Park. Antonio Smith, who plays the homeowner, is a community outreach assistant in the city, and a longtime resident.

In the video, the pair starts out with some “trash talk.” For example, garbage cans “need to be brought back into the garage or behind a screened enclosure after pickup,” Riegger says as they stand in Smith’s garage. They wrap up at the end by going over key points.

“Know the Code” is one way that the city is getting creative about its code enforcement.

The video can be watched in its entirety or by “chapter” on the city’s website, its YouTube channel or other social media sites, according to city materials. It’s available in English, Spanish and Hmong.

Teaching via stories

City Council Member Mike Trepanier first brought up the video idea several years ago. It came to him as he realized that the city’s traditional communication channels didn’t reach everyone, especially in light of the city’s changing demographics. Brooklyn Park is among the most diverse cities in the state, and many of its residents are immigrants with limited English skills.

New city residents, too, in general, might be unfamiliar with the city’s rules, and others simply “don’t have an idea of what’s expected of them,” he said.

In some cases, community members may turn to the ordinance book for answers, but it can be off-putting. “It’s confusing. Some people might say, ‘It’s too thick; I’m not looking in there,’ ” Trepanier said. As an educator, he’s found that “most people learn through stories,” he said.

Thus, the city sought to make the production relatable, and to avoid “talking heads.” After all, the codes are about “making people’s lives easier and the city more livable.” The video should reflect that, Trepanier added.

Brooklyn Park receives an average of around 5,000 code complaints throughout the year, Riegger states in the video. However, the goal isn’t to punish people by writing citations and generating fine income. “We want to get compliance without having to do that,” Trepanier said

A rebranding effort

The city is also working to rebrand itself, and that marketing campaign underscores the fact that “it’s our responsibility to share and communicate,” Trepanier said. “My hope is that we figure out every way possible of helping people access” the proper information.

Jason Newby, code enforcement and public health manager for the city, who led in the video’s production, said, “It’s a visual for residents to see and translate.”

When the video was still in a preliminary stage, “we took a look at how we respond to complaints, the minimum standards for people,” and the problems that come up the most, he said.

Also, the video speaks to “our inspection philosophy.” An inspector should be “a resource, not a hurdle,” Newby said.

“Know the Code” is potentially one of many videos. In time, the city may add chapters to the video or other departments might produce similar dramatizations.

The video augments other changes the city has made in recent months to make the codes more comprehensible.

For example, it has revised the notices it gives out to people, using plain language. Non-English speakers are directed to a phone number for a translation. The notice also points people to the video link.

Furthermore, initial home inspections now include a step for outreach.

Knocking on someone’s door or calling them to talk about an issue is an official part of the process. It happened before, but “this makes it more intentional,” Newby said. “It gives people the chance to get to know their inspector.”

Nothing beats face-to-face interaction, he said, adding that casting city workers in the film was purposeful, to make them recognizable to residents.

Also, if there’s a language barrier or another issue, hopefully it can be identified right away, Newby added.

“Rave cards,” sort of like business cards, will provide QR codes that people can scan with their smartphones to view the video. The cards will be included in welcome bags that the city gives out to recent residents through its New Connect program, according to Josie Shardlow, the city’s neighborhood relations specialist. The materials also will be distributed at community meetings and other events.

Additionally, the video will soon play on TVs at City Hall.

All in all, the video is a tool that “helps to level the playing field, to make sure that everyone has the same information,” Shardlow said.

To watch the videos or to learn more about the “Know the Code” videos, go to www.brooklynpark.org.

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.

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