It appears that the City of East Ridge is getting very serious about residents who are violating city codes as it relates to junked cars and debris in yards.
I attended court last week at City Hall. Not Municipal Court, but a hearing by the Administrative Hearing Officer, Christopher Harris. There were more than 20 cases before the AHO that were prosecuted by City Attorney Mark Litchford. I heard two of them.
In both cases Litchford called city codes inspectors to testify about unregistered/inoperable vehicles left in people’s yards. In addition, those cited to court had various items scattered about their yards and in one case a travel trailer that had not been moved in years.
The offenders had been given a notice of violation and a specific time frame to come into compliance. City inspectors had returned to these houses to see if the residents had taken any measures. They pretty much had done nothing to comply with city codes.
Next step was a registered letter informing them that they were to appear before the Administrative Hearing Officer to explain.
One man said he didn’t realize the city had codes that prohibited him from using his yard as a dumping ground. Another said he had a bad back and that the city was responsible for flooding on his property which prohibited him from removing all the junk that had accumulated.
Harris didn’t buy it. In both cases I witnessed, he fined the offenders several hundred bucks, plus a $75 administrative fee. However, he told the offenders that if they took actions to comply with city codes – remove the trash and get rid of the cars or register them – the fines would be waived.
Kenny Custer, Director of City Services, said the city intends to step up its enforcement of code violations and use the Administrative Hearing Officer as a means to get residents to comply. In the past, he said, these cases would drag on and on. Inspectors would repeatedly hand out notices of violation and residents would oftentimes ignore them. Not any more, Custer said. People will be given notice to clean up their property. If it doesn’t happen, it’s off to appear before the AHO, who by law can fine people up to $300 per violation.
“We don’t want people’s money,” Custer has said numerous times when discussing this issue with East Ridge News Online. “We want people to clean up their yards and come into compliance.”
Custer said the city will also begin to focus on dilapidated commercial property. In particular, Custer wants commercial property owners to address aging signs of long-closed businesses that mar the viewscape along Ringgold Road. The AHO has the authority to fine these property owners $500 a day if they do not comply.
OK, so the city has a codes department that notifies property owners to get their act together. If not, they go to court. Believe me, this is court. Neither of the two people I saw standing before Harris had legal counsel. They could have used a lawyer, as the proceedings are run just like a trial. The city puts on evidence (Litchford entered photos into the evidence as exhibits). Codes officials testify. The accused has an opportunity to cross-examine and put on evidence telling his side of the story.
So, where does the city’s Housing Commission fit into all this?
Custer said the Housing Commission hears appeals from property owners whose homes or businesses have been condemned or have been ordered demolished. Everything else goes before the Administrative Hearing Officer.
The upstart here is this: the city disbanded its Housing and Redevelopment Authority. It was established to fight “blight” and ensure that every person in East Ridge has access to “safe and sanitary” housing.
Having a beefed up codes enforcement department that really uses the power of an Administrative Hearing Officer, and a Housing Commission that can order the demolition of falling down houses and businesses can essentially accomplish the same thing that the defunct East Ridge Housing and Redevelopment Authority was charged to do.
Many people in our city made that argument a long time ago.