Ken Lewis no longer has one of the worst jobs in Colorado Springs.
For him, I am happy.
But I’m sorry for all the neighborhoods that are losing their champion in Lewis, who retires today as code enforcement administrator.
And I’m sorry for whoever tries to replace Lewis, a man I consider one of the city’s most dedicated public servants working in one of the most thankless jobs around.
As code enforcement administrator since 2005, Lewis presided over the city’s complaint desk. He and his 10 officers scoured the city, literally, for graffiti. They patrolled for illegal signs. They cruised alleys and vacant lots for illegal dumping. And then there were the weed complaints. They fielded thousands every summer.
Imagine a staff of 10 patrolling 200 square miles of city streets for weeds and graffiti and trash.
And that doesn’t mention the important work Lewis and his staff did patrolling the city’s 500 or so apartment complexes for health and safety violations, looking for bedbugs and roaches and rotting patio decks, for example.
They protected tenants whose landlords are slow to fix broken furnaces, restore water or repair and clean up after sewage backups.
Since joining the agency in 2004, he’s lived in the trenches, fighting for our quality of life. It was not unusual for Lewis to show up to do the heavy lifting when, for example, a vacant building like the old Fish Market on West Bijou Street needed to be cleaned of homeless trash and boarded up.
Lewis, 63, really cared, which is probably why he is burned out and ready to retreat to his farm with his family.
Lewis was an innovator who, for example, knew there had to be a better way than to have clerks jot down complaints on 5-by-8 inch index cards, send them out with officers who scribbled notes on the cards in the field, brought them back to the office to be transcribed into a computer database so a property owner could be notified.
“I started looking for ways to enhance our abilities,” Lewis said. “I came up with tablets using wireless cards.”
Complaints phoned in or emailed to the office could be transmitted instantly to officers who sit in front of a dilapidated building, for instance, write up a complaint and transmit it back for a clerk to handle in a matter of minutes instead of hours or days.
“We were using wireless cards before the police department,” Lewis said. “We gained at least 20 percent in productivity by going to tablets with wireless cards.”
Another innovation was creating an in-house graffiti-removal and trash hauling team, accelerating response time to combat those chronic problems.
Lewis also campaigned for a blight ordinance, adopted in October 2006, that gives city code enforcers limited power to demand dilapidated properties be improved or face possible removal.
To make the case for an ordinance, Lewis pointed to the Joseph O’Brien house at 715 N. 24th St., which has been condemned since 1973 — the longest in the city.
Lewis said the blight ordinance lacks teeth to allow for aggressive enforcement of houses like O’Brien’s. And he said politics made it even harder for him to crack down.
“I never felt like I had the support on City Council to go take properties like I needed to,” Lewis said.
That’s one of the big frustrations felt by Lewis, who also is weary of trying to battle complaints that come in at a rate of 1,500 a month with a staff a fraction of the size of comparable cities in Colorado and the U.S.
As a result, some complaints have to wait while life-threatening issues are addressed by his staff.
“So people are always mad,” Lewis said. “People lose their minds over the simplest things. The complaints are amazing. And I just don’t have the staff to do it all. It’s part of the reason I’m retiring.”
It just isn’t as satisfying as his previous career with the Colorado Springs Police Department, where he served nearly 28 years as a major accident investigator, a vice, narcotics and intelligence detective and a patrol officer before retiring in 2001.
But he was bored on his ranch south of Simla and came back full time as a code enforcement officer, rising to the top of the agency when Karon Dipentino retired.
I’m not alone in my admiration for Lewis. Consider what Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, said of him.
“His retirement is going to be a huge loss for the city,” Munger said. “Ken has, with very limited resources, been working hard to make sure the rules we’ve all agreed to live by, the codes we impose on ourselves, get enforced to protect our quality of life.”
Munger recalled how Lewis struggled to maintain service despite deep budget cuts in 2009 which slashed his department and added responsibilities.
“Ken knows that when code enforcement suffers, the whole neighborhood suffers,” Munger said. “He’s been a real friend to neighborhoods and a real professional civil servant completely devoted to the city.
“He’ll very much be missed.”