New section focuses on civil enforcement

October 1 marked the first day that the new Regulatory Enforcement and Economic Justice Section (REEJ) in CAO's Civil Division was fully staffed and operational.

"It's exciting to be part of REEJ because it involves the enforcement of new ordinances, including the regulatory marijuana licensing and labor standards ordinances, and provides for a new coordinated enforcement effort of our existing City Code." says Tamera Van Ness, REEJ director, who previously was a precinct liaison with the Seattle Police Department as well as a Land Use Section attorney.

Van Ness pursued the supervisory position because it allowed her to combine her expertise and skill sets from her previous positions to better serve the community. Her team is comprised of assistant city attorneys Stephanie Dikeakos and Cindi Williams, paralegal Debra Hernandez and legal assistant Ianne Santos.

REEJ is empowered to enforce new City regulations that apply to the licensing of state retail marijuana stores. Seattle is one of the first cities to pioneer legal marijuana licensing, and Van Ness looks forward to the new path that REEJ will pave for others to follow.

REEJ is "responsible for civil enforcement of City Codes, including civil rights, labor standards, housing, zoning and licensing regulations." REEJ is bringing everything that used to be scattered throughout several civil sections "under one umbrella, which will ensure consistent enforcement of regulatory matters," as Van Ness puts it. REEJ will continue to work closely with the other Civil Division Sections including Government Affairs and Land Use.

City Attorney Peter Holmes says he has wanted to implement REEJ as a section in CAO for several years. REEJ will ensure that issues that were originally handled via criminal procedures are now handled via civil regulatory procedures. Clear laws and guidelines are now being implemented to ensure a streamlined process. "Law is a servant for the people, and should be utilized as a safety feature for citizens," Holmes said, and REEJ has been put into place to guarantee that safety.

"Where we previously only had a hammer to deal with regulatory problems," says Holmes, "we will now be adding a new tool to our shed." Holmes wants this new section to be agile and specialized; it brings a new approach to matters that used to be handled solely by criminal law enforcement. "REEJ is going to be getting out of the silo, and I hope that it will encourage other law enforcement agencies to also get out of their silos," Holmes said.

These regulatory issues also include minimum wage regulations and wage theft, and verifying that proper conditions exist in residential and business buildings. REEJ approaches regulatory issues not from a criminal perspective, but from a public health and safety perspective. Instead of pursuing people who do not comply with cited regulations through arrests or criminal action, REEJ can file lawsuits to enforce compliance. 

For example, if a landlord were to turn off the heating in his or her apartment/ housing complexes and the tenants were to come to the City Attorney's Office, REEJ attorneys would be able to intervene because they would be regulating and protecting the citizens' health. Van Ness emphasized that REEJ is a means to become "more aggressive in regulatory licensing in order to handle problem business establishments." The section has given the office the opportunity to fully protect citizens from injustices and provide safer communities and welfare for all.