Steve Hughes had plenty of practice dealing with stubborn souls before he became a municipal code enforcement officer. He shoed horses for nearly 30 years, so perhaps it’s no surprise at all that he’s considered a top performer in his current line of work.
In late March, the Oklahoma Code Enforcement Association — imagine a whole association of those guys all in one place — held its spring conference at the Quartz Mountain Arts & Conference Center in Lone Wolf and named Hughes its Code Enforcement Officer of the Year.
Andy Templeton of Sand Springs, president of the association, said Hughes is one of fewer than two dozen code enforcement officers to have ever earned the honor, and Templeton said Hughes “embodies the heart and soul of a great code enforcement officer.” Let that sink in — Pawhuskans are receiving the diligent attention of one of the very best in the business.
Hughes says the big things you have to work at in the code enforcement business are exercising common sense, striving to be fair and developing a “thick skin.”
“The biggest thing for me is you’ve gotta be fair,” he said.”You can’t pick and choose. I’ve gotten lawyers, I’ve gotten judges. A lot of them I didn’t know were judges until after the fact.”
Then there’s the common sense part. Hughes explains you can’t just come down on people like a ton of bricks, without regard for their circumstances.
“For example, you can’t expect an elderly or low-income family to comply with all violations overnight,” he said. “Sometimes it takes months, and as long as they’re making progress that’s OK.”
He also notes there are organizations in the community willing to help people who need to address problems with their property.
“There are organizations in our community that will help and I’m more than willing to help get the two together,” Hughes said.
Then there’s the “thick skin” part. Hughes matter-of-factly acknowledges that being a code enforcement officer can be stressful and you will get your share of negative feedback.
“But this job is also very rewarding,” he said. “Yes, there might be some complaints but for every one complaint, 15 or 20 people will thank me for getting a certain property cleaned up.”
Another part of that “thick skin” approach is making sure to talk with the public in a respectful way.
“I don’t go off half-cocked and talk to people bad,” Hughes said.
A particularly effective tool that Hughes has incorporated into his performance as a municipal code enforcement officer is sending photos of the property along with enforcement letters.
“When I send somebody a letter, I just take a picture of it and send it with the letter,” he said. That photo then becomes part of the case record, which the municipal judge can view when he talks with the property owner accused of a violation.
Hughes’ understanding of the power of a photo flows naturally enough from the fact that another aspect of his background is he worked for nearly three decades as the official photographer for the Cavalcade Rodeo, and for more than two decades as the photographer for the Ben Johnson Memorial Steer Roping competition. He’s had practice at it.
One more aspect of Hughes’ approach is that he’s careful to give thanks to those who make his job easier — Bill Bruce, the municipal utility director, whom Hughes calls “a walking encyclopedia” of information about the city of Pawhuska; Barbara Smith, the city clerk, to whom he turns for advice about complex situations; Harvey Payne, the city judge; and Larry Eulert, the city manager.