Making sure the residents of Sandy Springs mow their lawns and tidy their trash cans may not sound like the city’s most laid-back job. But for code enforcement officer Paula Allen, it’s a lot more fun than her previous career in policing.

Besides the obvious benefits — “I am not getting shot at or fighting” — Allen said in a recent phone interview that it’s the personal touch and relationship-building that make code enforcement rewarding. That work helped her win the honor of the nation’s officer of the year award in October from the American Association of Code Enforcement. This month, she was promoted to senior code officer, supervising other inspectors.

Sandy Springs Senior Code Officer Paula Allen. (Special)

“With policing, you deal with the public and you move on,” Allen said, contrasting that with her work in Sandy Springs, where she has been with the code enforcement office a little over three years. “They kind of treat me, in some neighborhoods, as the girl next door with some oomph behind [her]. They’ll talk to you and then sneak [a complaint] in.”

“Code enforcement is a vital part of the city’s services” and provides the sort of attention and responsiveness that led to the city’s 2005 founding, noted Allen’s boss, Code Enforcement Manager Yvonne Smith.

The Colorado-based AACE gives its annual award to a code enforcement officer who is innovative, thorough, analytical, and a good leader. Smith said that’s why she sent Allen to the group’s national convention in New Orleans. “By the way, I nominated you for code enforcement officer of the year,” Allen recalls Smith adding.

It was Allen’s first convention, and she said she was not fully prepared for the Mardi Gras theme — much less for winning the award. “I had on a cute little dress, but I [also] had on Chuck Taylors,” she said.

The trip confirmed the city’s profile in the code enforcement world, Allen said.

“A lot of places, when they hear us coming, [they say], ‘Oh, Sandy Springs,’” she said, describing the city as providing good equipment and good support from staff and elected officials. “Sandy Springs has a wonderful reputation for city beautification.”

Allen previously spent 18 years as a Fulton County police officer, serving as patrol supervisor. Now, as a code enforcement officer in the city’s privatized government, she works for The Collaborative, a Boston-based contractor.

“It’s kind of a seasonal type of enforcement. In the springtime, they call us the grass police,” Allen said. In autumn, she said, proper disposal of fallen leaves is a big issue — and the lack of foliage means officers can get a better view of properties and possible other code violations.

While the job has its routines, Smith said, it also has surprises and complicated situations that officers have to be creative to solve, such as sizable neighborhoods with blight issues. “Citizens may not know that we’re winging it,” she said.

At the Jan. 3 City Council meeting, where Allen was praised by councilmembers for her national recognition, Smith noted the department is doing the work with a staff cut from five officers to four.

Allen said that a big asset in doing the job is the community she serves.

“Our homeowners here are quite informed and [interested] in keeping the neighborhood beautiful,” she said.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.