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Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.

The long, persnickety arm of the bylaw

Bylaw and Regulatory Services would be Steve Collins' pick as the likely home of some of the most thankless gigs in the city's workforce.

You don't get a lot of love bestowing parking tickets, prosecuting back-fence feuds between neighbours and otherwise taking a compliance tape measure to the citizenry.

Evelyn Harford / Metro Order this photo

You don't get a lot of love bestowing parking tickets, prosecuting back-fence feuds between neighbours and otherwise taking a compliance tape measure to the citizenry.

Bylaw and Regulatory Services would be my pick as the likely home of some of the most thankless gigs in the city's workforce.

You don't get a lot of love bestowing parking tickets, prosecuting back-fence feuds between neighbours and otherwise taking a compliance tape measure to the citizenry (or as the branch itself more neutrally puts it, “the enforcement and administration of more than 50 municipal bylaws and provincial acts within the City of Ottawa.”)

And yet we can't seem to get enough. According to bylaw's annual report, which goes to the community and protective services committee Thursday, their staff answered 76,642 calls for service in 2015, a one per cent increase over the year before. They ticketed 354,676 parking infractions, nearly a thousand for every single day of the year, in the process transferring some $19 million from motorists' wallets to city coffers.

Bylaw officers were also the front line troops in the city's rather contradictory reaction to the Uber question, aggressively enforcing the old taxi regulations even as new ones legalizing the ride-sharing service will come into effect at the end of this month. In 2015, they laid 168 charges against 75 drivers, with fines stacking up to about $47,000.

Animal care and control, business and lottery licensing, tobacco control and smoke-free areas, traffic and parking, noise, graffiti, clothing donation boxes, even shopping carts, all fall under their empire of urban quibbles.

If there's anyone regularly grateful for bylaw, it's probably the news media, who can rely on the service for a steady supply of tales of alleged bureaucratic overreach, all on an intimate human-interest scale.

Last week, it was the Little Library in front of Mimi Golding's house in Hintonburg. Her free borrow-a-book, leave-a-book boxes, after a few expansions to meet growing demand, were deemed to encroach on city property and ordered closed by the power of by-law. 

The irony of such a shutdown while some Hintonburg residents agitate for a bigger public library branch is hard to miss.

Our bylaw squad was not, of course, on patrol for rogue bibliophiles. The enforcement, as usual, was touched off by a complaint from persons unknown.

The anonymity of bylaw complainants is no doubt aimed at limiting further conflict and heading off tit-for-tat reprisals, but in depriving people of the basic natural justice of facing their accuser, it inevitably creates bad blood – and for certain people, let's face it, it's an open invitation to harassment and score-settling.

Bylaw officers, who have to enforce these micro-edicts, are frequently painted as the bad guys and girls, but they're just doing their appointed rounds in a largely complaint-based system. There's a role for the rest of us in the quality control of those complaints. Bylaw is only as persnickety as we make it.

Calling the authorities to formally settle every trivial five-past-eleven noise complaint or dispute over front lawn aesthetics can be seen as a failure of citizenship, an abdication of responsibility for our own affairs.

If you have an honest difference with a neighbour, why not give some of the city's longest-suffering officials a break and first try going upstairs or next door and talking to them about it yourself?

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