Bylaw officers are usually viewed in a negative light as the people who ruin your day by slamming down a big ticket for a parking infraction. The Tribune’s Ryan Horne spent a morning with a City of Guelph bylaw officer to see what the job’s all about.
By Ryan Horne
Dominic Mitges is a people person. You have to be if you’re going to be a successful bylaw officer. “I love this job because I get to interact with a variety of people,” said the Guelph native who graduated from a policing program at Conestoga College in 2007. “A lot of people think we are just the parking enforcement guys, but we do so much more.” On July 19, Mitges’ day started at 8 a.m. like any other – with an hour-long briefing at city hall for all bylaw officers working the day shift. The big news on this day is that the city has elevated its outside water use program to Level Two – Red. This means there is a ban on lawn watering and further restrictions on watering trees, shrubs and flowers, as well as vehicle washing. After the briefing, around 9 a.m., Mitges and this reporter jumped into a City of Guelph SUV and our three-hour ride-a-long commenced.
The morning drive began with three residential complaints, including a man washing his car, a car that was apparently leaking oil on Glasgow Street and a van that had been parked on the road for more than 48 hours. When we arrived at the scenes, nothing was going on.
“Some days you’re busy and with every call something is going on,” said the officer of five years. “Other days you’re busy with calls, but nothing’s going on when you get there.”
This could be one of those days. But a day with few tickets written is not a bad one for Mitges.
“I don’t get a kick out of throwing a ticket down,” he said.
Mitges works four days of 12-hour shifts in a row, then gets four days off. The same goes for all bylaw officers.
Driving eight to 10 hours a day, he knows Guelph like the back of his hand. Still, every now and then there are streets that are impossible to find.
“There always seems to be a tree from the Mesozoic Era blocking the sign when you’re trying to find a street you’ve never heard of,” said Mitges with a chuckle.
Mitges received a call from a Guelph resident who was irate with an unknown group of people who have been throwing bags of garbage onto his front lawn.
When we arrived at the residence, the older man who owned the house was visibly upset about the littering, which has been going on for months – especially the two-litre pop bottle filled with cigarette butts sprawled on the lawn.
“I don’t know the son of a bitch who’s doing this, but it’s (expletive deleted) pissing me off,” said the man.
In a situation like this, even though the man was not angry with Mitges, an officer needs to find a way to talk the person down. Showing empathy by validating people’s feelings and frustration goes a long way in this job, said Mitges.
“You will be dealing with situations that are emotional,” he said.
A worker from the city’s waste resource service came to take the garbage away to investigate it and, hopefully, find clues as to where it could have come from. The chance that something can be found of any consequence is slim to none.
We drove past a house where a garden was being watered.
The problem: they were watering on the wrong day – even house number on an odd day – and it was outside the restricted time zone from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Mitges talked to the resident and explained the new restrictions on watering, but didn’t issue a ticket.
“We like to look at it like a first-time scenario” whenever possible, said Mitges, who’s currently attending the University of Guelph in criminology on a part-time basis. “Our biggest thing is to gain compliance and educate the city.”
This time around, the man receiving the warning was very understanding, but that is not the norm. Mitges has been assaulted and heckled a number of times on the job, which is something that comes with being a bylaw officer.
“Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the job. You have to take the good with the bad,” he said.
Mitges said good officers should be able to talk themselves out of 98 per cent of confrontations by knowing when to be assertive and when to be calm.
The owner of a laundromat wanted a truck and trailer towed in her parking lot. If the owner of the truck were there, Mitges would have simply asked him or her to move it. Instead, it was time for the first ticket of the day, but no tow. In order for them to have the right to tow, there needs to be a City of Guelph bylaw sign around the area of the parking infraction.
After a couple more non-calls, we ditched the car and trekked downtown on foot. Mitges likes to use his time on foot to build rapport and chitchat the locals, including a fellow Italian who Mitges always talks to in that language when they see each other in the heart of the city.
“It helps to forge relationships with people downtown,” he said.
A car without any sign of a driver was parked illegally near the mall – ticket time.
Not 15 minutes later, another vehicle was parked in almost the same spot. This time the driver was a pizza man, and Mitges told him to move his van out of the way for safety reasons. The driver complied. Hopefully, nobody swiped his pizzas when he put them down to move the van.
A lady was petting a pigeon on the sidewalk that had apparently been stranded on the road because of a broken wing. She called the Guelph Humane Society and was waiting for their arrival.
“It’s very unpredictable, that’s why I continue to work here,” said Mitges. “I really never know what I’m going to encounter.”
Anything can happen in a day-in-the-life of a bylaw officer.