City plans to do away with code enforcement board in favor of magistrate

Published: Monday, August 12, 2013 at 4:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 12, 2013 at 4:30 p.m.

The Gainesville City Commission plans to do away with its Code Enforcement board in favor of having a licensed attorney decide cases and issue fines.

More than two years after talks started at the committee level, the commission passed an ordinance on Aug. 1 to establish the special magistrate position.

The move away from the resident code board to the magistrate is expected to take place when the new budget year begins Oct. 1. The city is in the process of seeking proposals from attorneys interested in filling the post.

About 80 Florida cities and 15 counties have a special magistrate. Area municipalities include the cities of Alachua and Ocala.

The cost estimate for the first year is approximately $20,000.

Carrie Parker-Warren, the current code board chair, questioned the logic of the city paying for a service that a volunteer resident board was providing for free.

She said she also believed the process of a board debating and discussing decisions worked better for residents and property owners.

“I think better decisions are made when several people discuss it,” Parker-Warren said.

Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls said she supported the move to bring an “impartial, objective” decision-making process based on the law.

At the Aug. 1 meeting, the ordinance to establish a magistrate passed 5-1 with Mayor Ed Braddy in dissent and Commissioner Todd Chase absent.

Braddy compared the ability to have a hearing before a resident code board to a trial before a jury of one’s peers.

“A member of the public who may have a small fine or may have a large fine at least has a chance before a board of his peers to make a case,” Braddy said at that meeting.

He said he felt the commission majority was making the change in an effort to generate more money from code fines.

Commissioner Randy Wells, who has advocated for the switch to a special magistrate, said the change was intended to ensure that code cases are handled in a “fair and equitable fashion” that takes into account the rights of the person facing a potential violation and neighboring property owners.

Wells said fines still may be rescinded if a property owner corrects a code violation, but those decisions need to be “consistent” from case to case and made in a timely fashion.

Some code violations that may land a resident or property owner in the enforcement process include illegal yard parking, renting without a required landlord permit, yard debris, unsafe structures, operating a business in a residential neighborhood and building without a permit.

In April 2011, the month before the City Commission’s Community Development Committee first discussed a potential move to a special magistrate, a city auditor’s report on landlord permitting revenues concluded the Code Enforcement Board often rescinded fines after staff put in extensive work on a case.

Looking at 2009, that auditor’s report said that, of about $374,250 in total fines for delinquent landlord permit fees, the board rescinded all but $6,025.

“Delinquent landlord permits are not consistently enforced by the Code Enforcement Board, resulting in inconsistencies in the application and accumulation of fines assessed,” the report stated. “Additionally, outstanding delinquent fines assessed by the Board are often later rescinded, based upon a landlord’s request, after extensive research and collection efforts are completed by Code Enforcement staff.”

Chris Cooper, the city’s Code Enforcement manager, said the move to a special magistrate still allows for appeals to county court.

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