Council debates how to handle ordnance officer citation enforcement
The Stevens Point Common Council called for a structured plan to deal with the appeals now passing through the system from residents and landlords who have been cited with city ordinance violations.
Last year, the council approved the creation of a new full-time ordinance officer position. The employee’s main job is to travel around the city and cite violations such as unkempt lawns, vehicles parked in front yards, zoning violations and the like.
Generally, residents cited with a violation are given a period of time to comply to have their fines waved.
Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza has said no new ordinances have been created and the ordinance officer strictly enforces what’s already on the books. The goal of the position is to promote compliance in the community and encourage owners to maintain their properties.
However, since the position was created, the Stevens Point Public Protection Committee – and ultimately the Common Council – has received five appeals for exemption from the service fees (fines) from residents and landlords, citing various extenuating circumstances.
One, who was cited for having a brush pile in his front yard, said his truck broke down and it took him longer than the allowed time frame to fix the problem.
Another was a landlord whose tenants were parking a vehicle off to the side of the driveway in the front yard. The landlord said the problem was fixed and asked the council to waive the fee.
In all five cases, the council denied exceptions to the service fees, but not without debate.
Council members argued that waiving fines on a case-by-case basis could frustrate residents who might feel they have been treated unfairly or have been singled out. Alternatively, simply denying every case in the interest of consistency isn’t ethical either.
“When I was on the Public Protection Committee, I fought for an appeal for a gentleman on Nebel Street who met compliance, he was three days late because his truck broke down, but he got rid of his brush pile and everything was met with compliance and that got overturned at Council,” said George Doxtator, District 1. “I voted to overturn it too because I was looking at this whole can of worms it opened up.
Doxtator said uniformity is important and the service charges need to be upheld.
“I agree with Alderperson Doxtator on this. I think if we don’t uphold all of them we are, just like last month, establishing a precedent that we don’t want to establish,” said Garrett Ryan, District 3.
He said the appeals weren’t all that different in nature and the council needs to hold all the property owners to the same standard.
“I’m really torn on this. Last month when the request came forward, I thought we need to treat everyone equal. But (two of the more recent appeals) are unique situations,” said Jeremy Slowinski, District 6.
Slowinski said one of the appeals was all but completely out of options and he was struggling to justify upholding the fine.
“We as a city really need to take a look at this,” he said. “I support Alderperson Doxtator’s motion to uphold these fees just for the simple fact of being fair to everyone, but moving forward we really need to look into this.”
One of the appeals was from a local landlord who is renting out a three-room apartment with only a one-car garage and a narrow, single-lane driveway. Additionally, he was cited for having trash bins in the front of the garage but has little room anywhere else to fit them.
“I spoke at the Public Protection meeting in favor of not following through with (the landlord’s) fines,” said Mary Kneebone, District 7. “One of the things that bothered me about the notification he got was he was cited not only for the car parked on the yard, but also for having trash cans in front of the garage. Every house on that street has trash cans in front of their garage.
“Every time I’ve driven down there – it’s in my district – and I’ve spent hours in the kitchen of one of those two units talking about the trash can issue. It didn’t seem fair to me to bill (the landlord) when nobody else got cited for garbage cans on that street. Because the lots are small, the driveways are small. There’s not a lot of room, and it’s really a unique situation. If we don’t have an appeal process for folks like that, then it’s not fair that way either,” Kneebone said. “I’d rather see nobody get fined than everybody.”
“I’ve spoken in opposition of these fines because I think there is some inconsistency, and also there is some interpretations of ‘reasonableness’ which I won’t go over again, but if we are going to impose or uphold the (service fees) against the other families … it should be applied evenly,” said Meleesa Johnson, District 5. “Kind of like if I’m going down I-39 and I get stopped for speeding, the officer can’t stop everybody. And certainly the Community Development Department can’t be everywhere.”
The council ultimately voted to uphold the service fees unilaterally in all four cases.
Wiza said the city is very open to the idea of working with residents to find the best solutions.
“If there needs to be an exception to the rule, then the rule may need to be looked at again,” Wiza said.
“In all of these cases, the violations were committed. In some cases, there may be limited alternatives,” he said. “For example, let’s talk about the garbage cans in front of the house. There are some places, I’m sure, they can’t be anywhere but the front of the house. So, in looking at the ordinance, our goal isn’t to have no garbage in front of the house. Our goal is to not see garbage in front of the house. If we were to change the ordinance to allow screening – let’s say you build a little alcove to put your garbage cans in so they can’t be seen from the street – that is probably acceptable.
“I can’t even really give you any good examples of what I think a service fee should be waved for, but I can tell you that just because you did it late shouldn’t be an excuse. Just because I got caught and my neighbor did not get caught, that’s not an excuse,” he said. “There are situations where the owner may want to ask for an exception or provide an alternative. I think we should consider those.”
Wiza said there is a number on the bottom of the letter the inspector delivers to call with questions or concerns, and it’s important to call should extenuating circumstances require an extension period or whatever the case may be.
“To the best of my knowledge, anyone who has had a reasonable reason to request an extension has been granted that extension,” Wiza said.
The appeals process could also help the city update the ordinances on the books, as well.
“I think it’s going to help us try and update some of these (ordinances). Many of these haven’t been updated in years. There were probably some very good reasons they were put on the books, maybe those reasons don’t exist anymore. Or maybe they need updating. So, maybe we look at that. Those are good things. We’re always looking at evolving. Times change and the rules should change with that,” Wiza said.