Judge, staff commended on code enforcement

CLEWISTON — Hendry County Planning & Community Development Director Margaret Emblidge gave an update about staff’s code enforcement efforts for the commissioners on Tuesday, Feb. 12.

“This is a follow-up from the January meeting regarding the code enforcement cases that were taken to the new Hendry County judge, Darrell Hill, and the staff report shows that there was a positive result of the cases, in the findings of the cases.… The purpose of this was to basically report on whether the court approach was a success or not, based on our new processes that code enforcement has been implementing, and we continue to improve and also based on the new judge. We are also looking at the next court hearing date on Feb. 21 to report on, and from there we’ll be having the discussion of whether we want to continue with the county court judge or look into a special magistrate,” she capsulized.

Although she wasn’t there in person, she said, “as far as the feedback I received from those who did attend, it seemed it was very good as far as staff’s presentation and the judge’s responses and the results.”

Commissioner Darrell Harris said, “I attended. I was impressed.”

Swindle: ‘Looks like resounding success’

Commissioner Michael Swindle asked, “What was the tone of the judge?” To which Mr. Harris replied: “Everything for us.”

Mr. Swindle said he’d read about the results, and “just from my perspective, looking at the data that’s presented, it looks like a resounding success in the progress that was made. Half of them came to compliance before they ever got there, and only a few were granted hardship cases. I think that that’s phenomenal.”

Mr. Swindle noted that “Commissioner (Karson) Turner has been very engaged, and I’d like to hear from his standpoint what he thinks about this.”

Beginning with stating that he would “buy a jersey and put Judge Hill’s name on it and wear it to sleep at night!” Mr. Turner was enthusiastic in his praise.

“These staff people represented the county to the utmost of their abilities, and the thing that I love the most about it was, they were working with our constituents, (though) they were over here on an issue, and the constituent was over there on the issue, everybody respected everybody. It was handshaking, and everybody was on the same page, and I just thought it was an extremely respectful process,” Mr. Turner stated.

“And the judge really led on the tone on that, but our staff should be commended. And I think Jennifer (County Administrator Davis) has done a great job along with Mrs. Emblidge, of getting them all on the same page (that) we’re trying to better the process. The judge clearly was being direct and firm and giving clear order on where we needed to see the properties going to, by the constituent and what they needed to be moving toward. We were extremely victorious from the standpoint of percentage of items that went before the judge and ruled in the direction that staff recommended.

“I envision someone that probably has a hoarding issue, and stuff’s grown up (in the yard), and they are the definition of a blight to their neighbor. And what I’m wanting to see is, after this process unfolds, what does compliance actually look like? And how do we make it where that property is being dealt with from an A-to-Z perspective? I thought that it was an overwhelming success.”

Turner questions: Make fine process more punitive?

Code enforcement officer Wanda Rota-Reina appeared to explain details about a couple of the cases, and there followed a long discussion.

Mr. Turner asked her if they should be looking at perhaps an automatic daily fine process in more extreme cases of people scoffing at county code enforcement efforts, because there are some homeowners who have avoided contact or fixing their properties’ problems after they’re cited as being in violation, and remaining in noncompliance.

County Attorney Mark Lapp explained that there is a series of contacts that need to happen to document cases, which can take months, but that there does exist authority to impose daily fines as long as there is some trigger found, where the judge could order it if requested. Fines also can be foreclosed on after a certain time.

Mr. Turner wanted to make it in the form of a motion to have staff move forward with a daily fine-imposing process on scofflaw property owners, and Mr. Lapp said it is in the code, varying on violation. Ms. Emblidge said that due process must be followed but that allowable time periods possibly could be shortened, but that the county needs to be very careful of its legal ground.

Lake Okeechobee News reporter/editor Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

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