VERNON - I thought bylaw officers spent all their time shoving parking tickets on my windshield with uncanny timing until I suited up in a protective vest and accompanied them on a typical evening shift. We didn’t go near a single parking meter.
On a Friday night, Vernon bylaw officer Russ Lutsenko handed me the navy slacks, button up shirt, knife- and needle-proof safety vest, and jacket that make up the uniform I’ve come to dread seeing near my car.
“There are seven bylaw officers with the city and the public thinks all we do is give parking tickets,” Lutsenko said.
As we climbed into the bylaw Jeep, I admitted I had a similar theory. It feels like revenue from my parking tickets alone was financing all of city hall.
Lutsenko started his 2-10 p.m. shift with pages of files and complaints to follow up on. We started with illegal parking on an alleyway adjacent to a popular park. People park there because it’s convenient, but it’s a safety concern because it inhibits people from getting out, and emergency vehicles getting in, if there’s a crisis.
Lutsenko approached a group of young people playing baseball in the park, asked them if the vehicles in question were theirs. He was polite and friendly and it paid off; the group returned to their cars. But that’s not always the case.
Lutsenko has been assaulted—both verbally and physically—while responding to calls. He was shoved by a man who came charging out the front door of a house party, drunk and upset. He’s been threatened, called names, fled from. He carries a baton and handcuffs just in case.
“I was pretty shy as a kid. I never thought I’d be doing this,” he said. “But I like interacting with all kinds of people and giving back to the community.”
It takes a certain type of person to do the job and be good at it. Lutsenko—who works as a plumber during the day—is a natural.
“A lot of times you deal with people (who) want to fight,” he said. “You’ve got to know how to diffuse the situation.”
It can be hard to stay positive seeing what he does on a daily basis. Drug use, violence, homelessness. What gets him most is seeing young people in bad situations. Children buying drugs in Polson Park, vulnerable girls hanging out with the wrong guys.
“It’s hard to see when you have children yourself,” he said. “There’s a lot of sad, unfortunate things that happen around here.”
Next on the the list was Polson Park, an area with a reputation for illicit activity—drug deals, drug use, homeless camps. It’s better than it once was thanks to a more hands-on approach to bylaw enforcement implemented about seven years ago. Instead of focusing all efforts on parking violations, the city followed Kelowna in using bylaw officers to combat crime in the community.
Where there used to be homeless camps, we passed joggers. Lutsenko chatted with groups in the park, politely checking what people were drinking. Sometimes all it took was him walking towards a group to make them disperse.
A complaint regarding a travel trailer parked on a city right-of-way brought us to a different corner of the city, one Lutsenko didn’t need to Google Map—he knows the city like he knows his bylaws. We drove up the specified road and found what we were looking for. Just as Lutsenko was sticking a tow notice on the trailer, the homeowner poked his head out and informed us he was the complainant, not the violator.
“The trailer I was calling about is down the road,” he said, clearly frustrated by the turn of events.
It took some explaining, but eventually the man understood he’d been illegally storing his trailer on a city right-of-way for years.
“A lot of the job is education,” Lutsenko said. “People don’t know all the rules and regulations.”
The rest of the evening featured bonfires, unsightly yards, locking up Polson Park for the night, as well as responding to new calls coming in, like those from “regular complainers”—members of the public on a first name basis with bylaw.
As Lutsenko made his rounds throughout the city, I puzzled at how he found time to issue me so many parking tickets. He was on the go throughout the shift, tirelessly keeping order in the city.
So I guess my theory was wrong. Bylaw officers don’t just sit around waiting to pounce on expired meters. Often, they’re doing your dirty work for you—telling people to turn their music down, asking your neighbours to move junk off their lawns, keeping rights-of-way clear.
All the things that would ruin your day, but that Lutsenko manages to do with a smile.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email email@example.com or call 250-718-2724.