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Officials delay decision on code enforcement board

Aug 18th, 2011 | 0

By DOTTY NIST

County commissioners will engage in more discussion before considering any changes to the Walton County Code Enforcement Board (CEB), including replacing the board with a special magistrate.

The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) held a workshop on the CEB on Aug. 9 at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.

The Walton County Code Enforcement Board consists of seven members appointed by the BCC, all of whom are residents of the county. Membership of the board includes, at minimum, one architect, one business person, one engineer, one general contractor, one subcontractor, and one realtor. The board meets at least every two months and operates in a quasi-judicial format. The board has jurisdiction to hear alleged violations of all codes and ordinances in force in the county, including but not limited to the Walton County Land Development Code and county ordinances.

Cases of alleged violations are brought before the CEB by the county’s code enforcement officers if the officers are unable to get alleged violators’ cooperation in bringing their property into compliance. CEB authority includes findings of violation, directives such as “cease and desist,” and imposition of fines. Unpaid fines become a lien on the property.

The CEB is an independent board whose decisions are not subject to review by any other county government entity. Its decisions may be appealed through the court system.

The workshop had been billed as an opportunity to look at the composition of the board and its meetings and procedures, with an eye to cost-saving measures.

Code enforcement board members do not receive payment for their service, but an attorney who advises board members and attends all board meetings does receive payment, as does a court reporter who records the board’s proceedings. Parties found to have violated the code are often assessed a fee equal to attorney and court reporter costs for the portion of the meetings devoted to their cases.

Special magistrates serve in place of code enforcement boards in some counties. They are attorneys or retired judges who receive payment for their service.

At the outset of the Aug. 9 workshop, County Attorney Lynn Hoshihara commented on direction she had received with regard to the workshop. Comments had included that state statutes in connection with the CEB should be examined and that the question whether to stay with a code enforcement board or go with a special magistrate should be considered, Hoshihara explained. Another aspect suggested for discussion was whether there should be an increase in fines that may be imposed by the CEB, she added.

County Administrator Greg Kisela told the commissioners that an advantage of the special magistrate option is better record keeping. He said many counties and cities have “migrated” to the use of special magistrates for code enforcement cases “for good reason,” he said.

District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander commented that she had hoped to discuss the county’s code enforcement officers. “Do they have the power they need to do their job;” she asked, “do they need any more authority?”

Kisela agreed that, “Do they have the tools in the toolbox?” was a good question. However he suggested taking up the matter at another workshop, to include the public’s expectations for code enforcement, which might differ between the area north of the bay versus south of the bay. He was of the opinion that these would be matters out of context for the current workshop.

Comander was of the opinion that it would be relevant to consider the question of what tools are needed by the officers to bring the CEB members the information they need to do their job.

Hoshihara agreed with Kisela that topics other than the CEB would be outside the scope of the current workshop. She added that at one time code enforcement officers had been empowered to issue citations but that that authority had subsequently been withdrawn from the officers by the county.

Staff provided the commissioners with written material, bulleted “pros and cons” of using a special magistrate for hearing code enforcement cases. These were based on the experience of Clay County after replacing its CEB with a special magistrate. Among the pros was that no county staff overtime was required because hearings were scheduled during business hours rather than in the evening. “Politics removed from decision due to quasi-judicial nature,” was the second bulleted statement. It was noted that hearings moved “more expeditiously” with only one person rendering a decision, with an average case taking approximately 10 minutes to hear in contrast with a 30-minute average for hearing by CEB, further reducing staff time. “Because the Special Magistrate is an attorney, the hearing participants appear to take him more seriously than Code Board appointees,” was another “pro” statement in the material. The last bulleted “pro” item stated, “The use of a Special Magistrate who is also an attorney greatly reduces the occasions giving rise to claims of due process violation.”

Only two “cons” were listed, the first stating that the special magistrate is paid “whereas a Code Board is a group of unpaid volunteers.” However, it continued, “the fee is reasonable at $150/hr; the Special Magistrate operates very efficiently.” The second “con” item stated that holding hearings during daytime hours is “less convenient for the public….”

Read the full story in the Aug. 18, 2011 edition of the Herald Breeze.

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