ONTARIO — The matter of civil penalties as it relates to those racked up by violating the city of Ontario’s ordinance pertaining to weeds and trash will go before the Ontario City Council again on Tuesday, per a request from Councilor Ken Hart to City Manager Adam Brown to add the topic to the agenda.
Hart wants the council to revise the existing city ordinance related to weeds and trash in the community, and copied the newspaper in his email to the city manager detailing why it needs another look.
Hart, in his email, highlighted information provided by Zach Olson, attorney with Yturri Rose in Ontario, that was given during the public comments portion of the council’s May 6 work session. It is noteworthy that Olson represents Mayor Riley Hill’s company Eldorado Investments, who is suing the city over a civil penalty he received that was initially $600 and was decreased to $500.
Hill’s account is among 75 accounts with outstanding balances totaling nearly $1 million. Also among these are $27,500 on a residence that was “worth less than $10,000 and another fine totaling $227,500,” according to Hart.
The issuance of any new fines or fees was put on pause during the council’s May 6 work session.
Since Hart’s request, one of the items that Brown has put together for the council to consider on Tuesday is a list that breaks those outstanding accounts down into four categories: the first billing for the violation; the amount currently owed; what would be owed under an amnesty program with a $1,500 cap; and what would be owed under an amnesty program with a $1,000 cap.
Several bills that have reached into the tens of thousands of dollars are decreased in the amnesty columns, including the aforementioned fines by Hart.
Updated information Brown presented to the council before the weekend showed the highest account at $229,575, and the lowest at $300. It is noteworthy that the amount owed on many accounts is remarkably higher than the first billing. For example, the $229,575 account started out as a $1,200 fine.
When asked whether those accounts that got so high were from daily accrual rates, Brown said he wasn’t sure about how each account accrued.
“I don’t know the particulars about each case, I would have to research each one. I know however, that there were penalties that accrued do to noncompliance,” he said in an email on Friday.
‘Clean up Ontario first’
Hart would like the city to bypass an amnesty program altogether, saying the current ordinance system needs a complete overhaul as it is “resulting in exorbitant fines.” He said he appreciated the work done by staff in regard to the recent proposal for a fee and fine amnesty program in which citizens can address their outstanding fines and seek a resolution, however, “such a program would only put a band-aid on a larger problem which is the existing city ordinance.”
Hart said the article in the Argus regarding the $1 million owed and the amnesty program proposed by staff earlier this month prompted him to weigh in with an alternative solution.
“I do not believe the voters of Ontario would accept a fine of $227,500 for weeds and trash as reasonable,” Hart said.
The councilor said that the purpose of a “nuisance ordinance” for trash and weeds should be to “clean up Ontario first, and work to seek reimbursement second.”
Hart’s suggestion is to ask the Ontario City Council to consider adoption of an ordinance that is similar in scope to the one being used by Fruitland. He noted that this ordinance should include a focus on cleaning up problem areas and use enforcement personnel to “educate and encourage compliance” and “coordinate outside contractors to get properties cleaned if owner noncompliant.”
Hart also suggested placing a lien on properties for a situation in which “reasonable costs [are] incurred to get a property into compliance.”
“I am hopeful that the City Council will seek out a solution that has the city partnering with our citizens to improve how our city looks as opposed to levying exorbitant fines on our citizens,” he said.
‘Not the intent’
Hart said he hoped that it was “not the intent of the prior Council” in adopting the current policy “to see fines of this amount filed against citizens” and yet, according to his statement, that is the situation which has occurred.
Brown echoed this sentiment saying, “the former council felt very strongly about keeping the city clean and they had to try something new, because what were doing was not working.”
The city’s civil penalty program began in January of 2018, having been adopted by the council the month prior.
The idea was initially floated in 2016 by former city councilor Tess Winebarger, who had heard about the idea on a visit to Salem, which issues civil penalties rather than citations for code violations. She had shared that information with then Code Enforcement Officer Dallas Brockett with Ontario Police Department. In turn, he spent months speaking to people in Salem’s code compliance division and even visited Salem to see how they were doing things.
Brockett presented his idea to the City Council at a work session in July of 2017. It is noteworthy that his initial proposal had a maximum fine of $2,000 per violation with $250 per month in fees for non-compliance for up to six months. Brockett told the council the purpose was for compliance, rather than for generating extra revenue. In July of 2017, past due accounts totaled $15,000.
However, when the council adopted the ordinance in December, Brockett’s proposal had went through several revisions which ultimately included up to $2,000 per day for those who continued to be out of compliance, with property liens possible.
As to whether the city ought to be discussing an overhaul of its civil penalties while amidst a lawsuit with the mayor over that very matter, Brown and Hart say lawsuit aside, the matter is before them now. Hart also said the matter deserves serious consideration without delay.
“This is an important program and staff have asked for guidance from the Council on how to proceed,” he said. “My proposal is intended to do just that — provide an opportunity for debate for options to allow us to proceed despite the lawsuit noted.”
Hart said he is not comfortable with the city continuing to operate the current ordinance, which not only has excessive fines, but requires $250 just for a citizen to appeal the fine.
Brown said Hill has stepped down when appropriate as the matter has appeared before the council, adding that the direction really began with the strategic plan session in February, when staff indicated they wanted to go in a different direction with code enforcement.
“So, staff presented an alternate fine structure in March. We asked council if they wanted an amnesty program in April and we brought that back to them in May,” Brown said. “So, we will continue working with the council to get to their point of comfort and I’m sure the mayor will continue to recuse himself as conflicts arise.”
Griffin Hewitt contributed to this story.