Hearing complaints is just part of his job

When residents call the City of Kent to complain about junk vehicles, garbage on property or abandoned homes falling apart in their neighborhoods, Brian Swanberg goes to work against the public nuisances.

Kent code enforcement officer Brian Swanberg investigates a residential property in Kent Tuesday that had junk in the yard and vacant

Code officer used to getting an earful

When residents call the City of Kent to complain about junk vehicles, garbage on property or abandoned homes falling apart in their neighborhoods, Brian Swanberg goes to work against the public nuisances.

Swanberg, in his 15th year as a city code-enforcement officer, investigates the complaint and takes steps, including eventual fines or court orders, to get a property owner to remove cars or fix up homes if they have violated city regulations.

Swanberg, a former Renton Police officer, knows the complaints will continue even after he has completed his job.

“In a job like this with enforcement, you always have someone mad at you,” Swanberg said during a Monday interview at his office in the city’s Centennial Building. “They’re mad that you’re not doing enough (about the problem) or the property owner’s mad that you’re doing too much to them. I figure if both of them are mad at you, you probably made the right decision.”

Swanberg knows as well as anyone how protective residents are of property rights.

“Nobody likes the government coming on their property to tell them what to do,” said Swanberg, who tries to explain to violators why certain activities become public nuisances to neighbors.

Swanberg, 49, became the city’s first code-enforcement officer in 1994. Then-Mayor Jim White promised to start a code-enforcement program as part of his campaign for office and Swanberg became the hands-on guy.

Swanberg retired from the Renton Police in 1989 after he sustained an upper-back injury when a drunk driver going 40 mph rear-ended his parked patrol vehicle shortly after he had responded to a call in downtown Renton.

“After six months of rehabilitation, I came back for a while,” Swanberg said. “But I did not want to get my back hurt again and endanger myself or my partner, so I retired to pursue something else.”

After Swanberg left the Renton Police, he spent four years as a private investigator. But with way too many 16-hour days, Swanberg viewed the City of Kent job as a good way to be able to spend more time with his three children.

For 13 years, Swanberg worked as the only code-enforcement officer in the city. Two years ago, R.E. Miller became the second code-enforcement officer after he retired from the Kent Police. Miller has watched Swanberg make a difference in the city.

“He helps clean up the city to make it a better place to live,” Miller said of Swanberg. “And he works with people to get the problem solved. It’s not all black and white with him. He’s pretty flexible.”

Besides the removal of numerous junk vehicles and garbage from property, Swanberg said more than 130 dilapidated structures have been torn down during his 15 years with the city because of code violations. He said the empty buildings can become fire hazards as well as hangouts for transients.

Despite the challenges Swanberg faces on his job, nothing compares to the personal tragedy he suffered nearly three years ago with the death of his oldest son in Iraq.

Marine Lance Cpt. Shane Swanberg, 24, died when mortar and rocket fire struck his base camp at Ramadi on Sept. 15, 2005. Shane Swanberg had been in Iraq fewer than 10 days and had yet to serve on his first mission.

“That’s not something I’d wish on anybody,” Swanberg said. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. The holidays are still rough. But his buddies contact me to see how I’m doing.”

Brian Swanberg spent the first 12 years of his life in Georgia and Florida before moving to Washington when Boeing transferred his father, who worked with the Minuteman missile systems, to Seattle.

Swanberg, who is remarried and lives in Tacoma, has a 23-year-old son who serves in the Army reserves, a 21-year-old daughter who works at Starbucks, and two grandchildren. Military portraits of his two sons stand on his office desk.

Health problems became a personal challenge to Swanberg five years ago, when he suffered a massive heart attack.

“My doctor told me I had the heart of a 30-year-old and four months later I had a massive heart attack,” said Swanberg, whose family has a history of heart trouble. “I thought I had chest congestion from a cold.”

An angiogram revealed blocked arteries and Swanberg had two stents placed in his arteries to help restore normal blood flow. The officer has since had two more heart attacks, even though he takes daily medication and watches his diet. Whenever he feels chest pain, he immediately must head to the doctor to determine the status of his heart.

Despite the personal tragedies suffered by Swanberg, Miller has watched his fellow worker continue to live with a positive outlook.

“For somebody who’s been through as much as he has, he’s still very outgoing,” said Miller, who shares an office with Swanberg. “He still cares about people. I’ve seen people go through similar things who get cynical and hard. He’s not like that.”

Outside of the office, Swanberg enjoys playing golf. He has a painting on his office wall of the 13th hole, part of Amen Corner, at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.

Swanberg also does woodworking. He built a gate for his backyard fence and has made several furniture pieces. Spending time in his workshop gives him a chance to get away from the duties of enforcing city codes.

“It’s relaxing when I get in the workshop,” Swanberg said. “I like working with my hands.”

Contact Steve Hunter at 253-872-6600, ext. 5052 or shunter@reporternewspapers.com.

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