Hendry County opts for code enforcement magistrate

CLEWISTON — The Hendry County Board of Commissioners on a 4-1 vote Aug. 13 approved switching to a special magistrate system for county code enforcement cases. It’s a move that the five commissioners have been discussing intensely at nearly every meeting for more than a year.

County Attorney Mark Lapp told the board a section in the code essentially already provides for a magistrate but without calling it that. “So we had to clean up the ordinance and clean up other provisions so they could use any of the processes specified in the code on any of the violations, but the board’s direction is to use the special magistrate, so we will do that,” he said.

Mr. Lapp cautioned them, however, that “we’re not going to be able to get the special magistrate costs back. The attorney general says we can’t recover that, but we can recover staff’s time and postage and some other hard costs. But we’re not going to have full cost recovery like we thought we might be able to.”

Commissioners also had directed that staff attempt to collaborate with other local governments so perhaps they could jointly finance the move. Mr. Lapp said Planning and Community Development Director Margaret Emblidge had “checked with all the cites within our two-county area here, and only LaBelle was interested, so we decided the best way to approach it would be an interlocal agreement, to deal with the legal restriction on one magistrate technically serving or separately serving for two local governments, which isn’t allowed, but by interlocal agreement it can be done basically as a subcontractor of us, so that’s the plan.”

This time, Commissioner Emma Byrd was first to speak on the proposed change, which has been a top priority of Commissioners Michael Swindle and Karson Turner, and they previously have been most vocal on the topic, joined to a lesser extent by Chairman Mitchell Wills and Commissioner Darrell Harris.

Ms. Byrd said: “Mr. Chair, I appreciate everything that code enforcement has done, and the more I look into this and the more I read it, I’m not in agreement with it. And the reason why is because in the county it’s going to allow certain things to happen — it’s going to allow the grass to grow, and it’s going to allow certain things to stand and it’s going to allow the area to look bad.”

She further objected that the time periods required for notifications and property owner responses would lengthen an already drawn-out process even more. “At first I was in favor, but now I’m not. The eyesores will remain.” Ms. Byrd commended the staff, saying “they are doing such a great job. I read certain reports where they went out and there’s been great improvement.”

Mr. Harris also questioned the time periods, and Mr. Lapp said “we can’t dictate times to him. There has to be certain time periods between letters and requiring respondents to appear before the magistrate.”

Commissioner Turner defended the proposed change, saying the county will avoid the overhead of mowing costs upfront because they will become “a tab that’s going to be rolling.

“We’re now going to plant a flag in the ground that says, ‘Hey, clean up your nuisance, clean up your problem that is affecting everyone’s property values, stop being a thorn to all of your neighbors and engage the process, or we’re going to take it from you.’ Can I be any more direct?”

Ms. Byrd responded, “Those same people who haven’t done anything, they’re not going to do it. They didn’t do it before, they’re not going to do it now; so my thing is, to let that grass grow up, I’m just not in agreement with it.”

Commissioner Harris pointed out, “A lot of them in my district live out of town and they don’t care. And the lien will build up so high, nobody will pay it.”

Commissioner Turner said the county already is letting liens get extremely high. “And we’re sending someone out there to run up the tab to perform work on behalf of the county. The county, for lack of a better word, is a giant lawnmower service, and that’s not appropriate to the taxpayers.

“But now there’s going to be repercussions and we’re going to take said property if they’re not going to pay the bill,” he added.

Commissioner Swindle pointed out that they probably need to add manpower to the staff. “Maybe we’d be able to put more before the special magistrate if we had more boots on the ground … It makes no sense to go to a magistrate if we’re not going to push the volume.”

Ms. Emblidge said, “We’re going to learn as we go,” adding they now will have the opportunity to conduct two hearings per month rather than one.

“In a perfect world, once the word gets out and certain things happen and we start these daily fines, everyone will start cleaning up themselves and then we will have less use for a judge and/or magistrate,” County Administrator Jennifer Davis said. “I think that’s our goal … but I think in the short term we’re going to have more volume. We are doing corridor sweeps, certain neighborhood sweeps; the team is working very hard to get the worst of the worst countywide … there’s a lot of work to be done … but the long-term goal is that the volume will decrease.”

She agreed on the manpower issue, noting, “We’re looking at a contract firm so that we can hire them when we need them for certain sweeps. Now, be mindful that it’s going to cost upfront dollars for this to work, and so you need to make sure that you give me a lot of money in my budget.” That elicited pained laughter from around the room.

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