City, mayor will head to court over code violations

This photo from Jan. 23 is among the exhibits submitted by the city of Ontario Feb. 18 in its reply to a petition for a writ of review on a civil penalty issued in August of 2020 to Eldorado Investments, owned by Mayor Riley Hill, for a property with ongoing violations of several city codes.

ONTARIO

The city of Ontario is preparing to go to court over Mayor Riley Hill’s attempt to get a civil penalty for violating city code against his business Eldorado Investments dismissed.

As of late Monday afternoon, a hearing had not been scheduled with the court; however City Attorney Larry Sullivan filed the reply to Hill’s petition within a few hours of the close of business on Feb. 18, the deadline for the city to reply.

On Feb. 19, Sharon Schlupe with the Malheur County Circuit Court was emailing attorneys “to find out how much time they would need to prepare.” Once she has heard back from all parties, a hearing date will be set.

The city’s reply included two reports on the Nov. 12 appeal hearing in which Hill first attempted to get the city to overturn the penalty, an audio file as well as transcript of that file prepared by Sullivan, a notice of hearing, an Argus Observer article and multiple photos.

City’s response

The first report was from the Nov. 12 hearing was conducted by Billy Carter due to a conflict of interest cited with the city’s hearing officer. In his petition to the court filed Jan. 11, Hill additionally took issue with Carter conducting the hearing, pointing out that Carter ran against Hill in the election and used to work with Dallas Brockett, the code enforcement officer who issued the civil penalty. Brockett no longer works for the city.

After considering the facts presented, Carter still found Hill to be guilty of violating city code, but reduced the civil penalty from $600 to $500 since Hill went through the effort of evicting squatters whom he alleges were responsible for the mess.

The second report was part of the record from the civil penalty hearing. In that report, Brockett details how he sent an abatement letter to Hill in January for a “large accumulation of junk, debris, junk cars, human feces, odors and other items.”

The abatement letter was aimed at helping Hill with evicting squatters off the property as Hill had previously contacted Brockett about needing to do that, according to the report.

In subsequent checks in February and March, Brockett noted the property was still out of compliance, and when he was able to get back in July, he found that nothing had changed. In August, it appeared there was some progress and on Aug. 19, Brockett filled out the civil penalty matrix for two violations: weeds and junk vehicle. In the abatement notice filed in January, five additional code violations were cited, including debris, outside storage of personal property, iceboxes and other containers, odors and outdoor storage of other non-trash items.

In the transcript of the audio recording of the hearing, Brockett provided an additional exhibit, which was photos he had taken of the property that morning.

“It looks like the weeds have been cut down but just piled up in giant piles and the cars are still there making the property not in compliance,” Brockett stated.

During the hearing, Zach Olson who representing Eldorado, asked Brockett about why on some visits to the property following the abatement in January through July, there was no communication between code enforcement and Hill, asking whether that was part of the abatement process.

Brockett replied that it was atypical, however added that based on Hill’s elected position “we go up the chain of command.” This included letting Chief Steven Romero know whether there was a violation, who would usually reply that he was going to talk to his boss (Ontario City Manager Adam Brown) before talking to Hill.

During the hearing, Code Enforcement Officer Rick Reyna said that Romero told the code enforcement officers to drop the fine, which was initially about $3,500 down to $600, encouraging his officers to “work with them and get this cleaned up to make Ontario shine.”

Furthermore, Brockett said it was atypical to let a case go on that long “but considering the circumstance,” they did not. Additionally, they could have done a daily penalty for seven months but Brockett only filled one out from July 22 — Aug. 19 before having to forego that penalty.

Carter eventually decided that the city did meet its burden of proof, telling Hill “it’s mind boggling as to why it took that long from January to somewhere around May or June or something before you could get those squatters out of there,” noting the judge OK’d clean-up of the property in February of 2020.

Transcripts reveal error in Hill’s petition

Hill’s petition to overturn the penalty alleged seven procedural errors made by the city’s Code Enforcement Department, including that Hill had cleaned up the property by the time he got the penalty.

His civil penalty was initially $600. In his petition, Hill took issue with the alternative hearing officer the city selected to conduct that hearing — Billy Carter, who ran against Hill for the mayor’s seat — since there was a conflict of interest with the original hearing officer.

In his petition, Hill also alleges that during the initial appeal hearing, Carter “repeated his campaign slogan that it was time to make Ontario shine,” however, according to the transcripts, it was Reyna who claimed that Romero had said that.

Brockett previously told the newspaper that there had been several attempts to get Hill to take corrective actions before the penalty was enacted. Brockett recently relocated to Baker City.

Included among these attempts were emails to City Manager Adam Brown, dating as far back as October of 2019, according to a text message obtained by the Argus from Hill in November of 2019 about another property altogether.

It is noteworthy that in Hill’s petition to the court, it states that during his political career, he has “opposed wasteful spending by the City,” and in particular “suggested limiting funding for ordinance officers.”

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