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Code board pushed under the bus

The Baker County Commission printed out a road map last week on how to beat a fine by the Baker County Code Enforcement Board for non-compliance.

Wait until an election year and plead hardship.

In a textbook example of how to set a horrible precedent, the county board reduced a non-compliance fine from $1410 down to $187.84, the lower amount equal to what the county zoning department spent processing the case plus a $50 fine.

The code board, at its April meeting, cut the original $2820 fine owed by Roger Harvey for non-skirting of a mobile home in half (by a 5-2 vote) and the defendant, as he has the right to do, appealed it to the commission.

Mr. Harvey, who showed up at the code board meeting with a bit of an attitude, had no credible defense as to why he ignored the initial complaint in 2010, why he did not attend a hearing on the case or why he let the fine accumulate during the maximum 180 days.

He claimed he did not receive notice of the complaint or an upcoming hearing, that is until he was presented with proof that he signed for the certified letter informing him of such.

In retrospect, it’s surprising that Mr. Harvey attended the code board meeting last month at all, considering that he went immediately to an old school chum, County Manager C.J. Thompson, and to County Commissioner Michael Crews, who is running for re-election.

Mr. Crews no doubt assured Mr. Harvey he would take care of it because he immediately sought from Mr. Thompson the amount of actual cost the county incurred preparing and prosecuting the case.

In approving the reduction, the county commission put politics in an election year ahead of supporting zoning code laws that it appoints a volunteer board to enforce.

If the code enforcement board didn’t exist, the commissioners would have to hear violation cases themselves. One can only imagine, given last week’s decision by the county board, what a mess code enforcement would be if left in the hands of elected officials with eyes trained on the ballot box.

Had the commissioners given the matter any thought above raw politics, they would conclude that fines for non-compliance are the teeth the code board (and by extension the commission) has to enforce the laws passed by the county commission.

And that’s where precedent is so important, and why the county board fell on its face with last week’s fine reduction. No testimony was taken from the defendant Mr. Harvey, who was present, likely because commissioners knew he had no defense.

He ignored the county’s zoning code and made no effort either to correct what was a minor violation or mitigate the circumstances other than to say he had fallen onto hard times. The code board has heard that before, and responded by slashing the fine in half.

Mr. Harvey also told the code board he believes the county has no right to levy fines at all. If he believes that, he should roll the dice again with the county commission before the fall election and get the law changed.

He’s batting one-for-one; might as well try for two.

So now, members of the Baker County Code Enforcement Board, all volunteers who serve without compensation, have to contend with the prospect of violators ignoring notices to come into compliance and appealing fines to the county commission.

Future violators can argue, as Mr. Harvey did, that the county has no right to amass the fines as an enforcement lever and, by extension, no right to tell them what to do with their property.

Commissioners, as they did last week, can then respond that the fines allowed by their ordinance are “crazy” or a financial burden and thus are not enforceable.

The Harvey case is (polluted) water under the bridge. The county commission has surely now invited future fine reduction cases to come before it, and would be wise to reverse precedent and, barring extreme circumstances that did not exist in last week’s case, back up the board it appointed to enforce its laws.

(Disclosure: the writer has been a member of the code enforcement board since its inception and is the current chairman. He voted with the majority to reduce the Harvey fine by half.)

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