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Thread: Enforcing code without attorney assistance?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Enforcing code without attorney assistance?

    How do I go about enforcing our fines attached to code violations if I get no legal assistance from our County Attorney?

    Everyone here KNOWS that Code Violation letters hold no weight regardless of the threats to fine them because there has never been any legal support. I have not yet met the county attorney, but from all indications he is almost exactly like the Space Chicken Lawyer from Futurama. I need a way to actually collect money when people fail to fix the issues I am sending them letters for.

    Has anyone ever run into this issue? If so, how did they resolve it?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by AG74683 View post
    How do I go about enforcing our fines attached to code violations if I get no legal assistance from our County Attorney?

    Everyone here KNOWS that Code Violation letters hold no weight regardless of the threats to fine them because there has never been any legal support. I have not yet met the county attorney, but from all indications he is almost exactly like the Space Chicken Lawyer from Futurama. I need a way to actually collect money when people fail to fix the issues I am sending them letters for.

    Has anyone ever run into this issue? If so, how did they resolve it?
    Yes. We don't fine anymore. We lien, then Sue if we need to, but the latter in very extreme cases.
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian ursus's avatar
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    What Raf said, except it takes a while to get your money on a lien. What you need is the political will to go behind your enforcement efforts. Your county attorney's unwillingness to participate probably stems from a history of knowing that there is no political will behind it...just a planner/code compliance officer trying to get something done. The attorney doesn't need or want another case - especially if he thinks that the politicians won't support it if it gets ugly in court. A lot of otherwise good people in city government staff have been railroaded while trying to do their jobs by suck-up, gutless wonder local politicians who never stand up for anything.

    Sorry. Short answer is that I've been in your situation. Wish there was better advice that I could give you, but you need an attorney if collecting the fees is going to involve court.
    "...I would never try to tick Hink off. He kinda intimidates me. He's quite butch, you know." - Maister

  4. #4
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Some places have established Codes Courts. For counties, it may require state legislation. For cities it can be the municipal court with certain days set aside for code violations (if you still have a municipal court system). The attorney would have minimal involvement: be available for pre-trial conference, rarely need to attend court. I have seen the judge conduct pre-trial conferences. Remember that fines are not your goal...compliance is. As staff, we often give administrative time extensions. Pre-trial is likely to give an extension. The judge is likely to assess a fine to be excused if compliance is reached: another time extension. With one or two guilty verdicts word gets around and compliance rates increase. The governing body still has to have the will.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian SW MI Planner's avatar
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    Our ordinance establishes that zoning violations are civil municipal infractions, so we write tickets.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by mike gurnee View post
    Some places have established Codes CourtsRemember that fines are not your goal...compliance is. As staff, we often give administrative time extensions.
    Well the issue is that people don't feel the need to come into compliance because they know that there will really be no repercussion if they don't.

    From what I understand, the way its been done for years here is that when we want to collect fines for noncompliance, the case gets sent to the attorney and then disappears into a black hole never to be heard from again. All our ordinances state that violation is a civil penalty. The thing is, I know if I start sending tickets to these people, they will be largely ignored. How do I make these fines legally binding if I have no support from our attorney?

    As far as political support, I will get it only if the person isn't a friend of a friend of a commissioner....I am sure many of you have been in this situation.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    does anyone use the assessment role to get their citations paid off? Seems I can go this route and have very little involvement with the Attorney.

    Is it possible to submit the violation case to our county clerk of court and have him authorize the citation?

  8. #8
    Quote Originally posted by AG74683 View post
    does anyone use the assessment role to get their citations paid off? Seems I can go this route and have very little involvement with the Attorney.
    How would that work? Are you taking about adding the citation to the property tax bill? That's probably a non-starter. I've often seen a lien recorded against the property for code enforcement violations. It's also common (at least in Illinois) for a lien to be placed for failure to pay public utility bills or property taxes.

    All this probably requires legal support. How you spoke with your city manager about the issue?
    The content contrarian

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by OfficialPlanner View post
    How would that work? Are you taking about adding the citation to the property tax bill? That's probably a non-starter. I've often seen a lien recorded against the property for code enforcement violations. It's also common (at least in Illinois) for a lien to be placed for failure to pay public utility bills or property taxes.

    All this probably requires legal support. How you spoke with your city manager about the issue?
    I have, and he is basically where I am. He's not sure what needs to be done either. He's only been here since February so its understandable.

    I had talked with another planner, and their town uses an assessment role. Basically they attach the citation much in the same way that unpaid taxes are attached. Talked to our Tax lady this morning and she wasn't sure that was possible. She said she had heard of towns doing it, but wasn't clear on what the County could do.

    The thing is, if I send out a citation letter, are they legally obligated to pay it? The ordinance says I am authorized to fine them, but I don't know if a letter holds any weight.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by AG74683 View post
    The thing is, if I send out a citation letter, are they legally obligated to pay it? The ordinance says I am authorized to fine them, but I don't know if a letter holds any weight.
    Finally the right question! I am not a lawyer, but...a citation is a charge of non-compliance. Like a traffic ticket one may pay the fine (admit the guilt), or appeal the citation. Perhaps through a court, perhaps a hearing before a BZA or governing body. You may get by if the citation clearly states that the alleged violator is given a time frame and process for appeal.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian developmentguru's avatar
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    I'm sure you're feeling very frustrated, and you're not alone - many of us have been there. In my city, we *finally* were able to get everyone involved in one room and explain that our Zoning Ordinance clearly defines violations as punishable offenses under our City Code's general penalty provisions - and that, while it also outlines the possibility of civil suits & injunctions as options, those options are simply not effective for most of our violation types. As such, we now work them through our Municipal Court system as someone referred to earlier. If they do not pay their fine, a warrant is issued.

    Here's the issue we run into now. First, the general "decision" is an extension of time, and given the time and amount of research required to get cases to MC in the first place, this simply re-starts the clock each time. Yes, I said each...sometimes we've gone through a couple or three rounds of this with the same issue. The second problem we have is that people have figured out that they can appeal that decision to the County Court - and that attorney has already openly stated that he/they see these matters as irrelevant and they have no interest...therefore - just appeal and your problem "goes away".

    Best of luck to you - hope you find a process that does what it is meant to, and in a more efficient way than ours does.
    "In our profession, a plan that everyone dislikes for different reasons is a success. A plan everyone dislikes for the same reason is a failure. And a plan that everyone likes for the same reason is an act of God." - Richard Carson

  12. #12
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    A brief description of our process, that works ok for us with almost no involvement from the city attorney.
    1. A citation is issued notifying what needs to be resolved and who to contact with questions. A date and time (at least 14 days later) is given to attend a code enforcement hearing presided over by a retired municipal judge.
    2. One week later the status is updated. If the property is in compliance, the case is closed. If the property is not in compliance code enforcement attempts to meet with the property owner and set a timeline and action plan to reach compliance.
    3. If they refuse to comply, they are required to attend the hearing.
    4. If the property owner agrees, the official hearing date is delayed. If compliance is reached prior to the deadline, the case is closed. If not, they must attend the hearing.
    5. At the official hearing (assuming the hearing officer upholds the code requirements) the property owner typically gets another opportunity and new deadline to resolved the issue.
    6. If the applicant doesn't attend the hearing or is generally belligerent, an abatement officer takes care of it for them. The property owner is billed for the cost of labor and supplies (about $500 to mow a 7,000 sq ft lot). When that property owner inevitably does not pay that bill a lien is placed on the property.

    I believe the key to our system working at all is that people see a hearing date set and they immediately try to resolve the issue. The threat of any type of court action seems to compel most of them into compliance. As for the property we have to abate, we typically don't see those fines/bills paid until the property is sold. Often times the real problem properties are just added to the City's inventory after it is declared abandoned by the courts. Some property owners just request to hand over the property rather than maintain it.... that becomes a whole other mess we have to sort through of course.

    The City Attorney has only been involved a few times on very high profile cases... or when the offending property owners know his phone number.

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