GOVERNMENT vs. CITIZENS
PART 1 of 4
by Margaret Goodwin
June 15, 2013
Josphine County, Oregon —This is Part 1 of a four-part analysis of the ordinances recently passed by the Josephine County Board of County Commissioners. This article provides an overview and background on the ordinances. Part 2 will examine the Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance, Part 3 will examine the Code Enforcement Ordinance, and Part 4 will examine the Hearings Officer Ordinance.
At least twice, previous Boards of County Commissioners have attempted to pass Code Enforcement and Hearings Officer ordinances. However, strong citizen opposition and the threat of a referendum quelled each previous attempt.
A Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance (90-16) was put on the ballot and passed by the voters on November 6, 1990, and has been in effect ever since.
On April 17, 2013, the current Board of County Commissioners voted to repeal the Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance adopted by the voters, and replace it with a new one. At the same time, this BCC adopted three other ordinances regarding Code Enforcement and establishing a panel of Hearings Officers to hear code enforcement and nuisance cases.
At the public hearings on these ordinances, a group of concerned citizens requested the Commissioners to voluntarily put the ordinances on the ballot, as had been done with the previous Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance, and allow the voters to decide on them. They also advised that, if the Commissioners adopted these ordinances by mandate, the citizens would initiate a referendum to repeal them.
Commissioner Simon Hare advised the other Commissioners “If this goes out to a vote, it costs us real money. They’re going to get 1300 signatures; it’s going to go on a ballot, and it’s not likely to pass.” But Commissioner Cherryl Walker insisted that the BCC should not give in to threats of a referendum. Acknowledging that the citizens were likely to reject these ordinances if placed on a ballot, the Board of County Commissioners voted 2:1 to adopt them anyway, with Commissioner Hare voting no.
The BCC’s Justification
The Board of County Commissioners (BCC) claims these ordinances are necessary to deal with a backlog of solid waste and nuisance cases that would otherwise have to go through the courts, which is expensive and time-consuming.
In a radio interview on KAJO on May 28, Commissioner Walker said “Currently, as the law stands, if a complaint is filed, it has to go through the judicial process, through the circuit court, which takes many, many years and the homeowner has to have an attorney to defend them.” This statement is simply not accurate.
The Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance (90-16) that has been in effect since it was adopted by the voters in 1990, states:
“8.020 After the letter mentioned in section 6.00 has been sent and the final deadline for compliance has passed and the violation continues, the county may notify the person responsible that a hearing shall be held within at least ten (10) days from the date of mailing or serving the notice. The person or persons responsible shall be invited to appear at a hearing before a County Hearings Officer (which may be the Board of County Commissioners) at the time and place stated in the notice.”
“8.030 … the county may file a complaint in a court of competent jurisdiction in lieu of, or in addition to, the procedure set forth in 8.020.”
Since no previous Board of County Commissioners was successful in passing a Hearings Officer ordinance, that leaves the Board of County Commissioners responsible for conducting hearings on solid waste/public nuisance complaints. If there’s a backlog, it’s because the BCC hasn’t been fulfilling that responsibility. The BCC does have the option of taking an alleged violation to court, but that is explicitly not required under the existing ordinance.
The BCC claims there’s a backlog of 300 complaints, and invokes our sympathy for the poor neighbors who have to endure an ongoing nuisance next door that can’t be handled under the existing Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement ordinance.
Local attorney, Jack Swift, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all the complaints filed in the county last year. There were a total of 90 complaints filed in 2012. According to Mr. Swift, 58 of those complaints were for alleged Planning Code violations, and only 14 of the complaints actually fall under the Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement ordinance. Of those 14, only two of them were actually signed by the complainants.
Even under the new ordinance passed by the BCC, a solid waste/nuisance complaint has to be signed, so only two complaints in the last year could have been prosecuted even under the new Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement ordinance. And whether those two complaints would actually be handled any more expeditiously under the new ordinance than under the previous one is undetermined.
Whatever urgency there may be to address a backlog of 300 code violation complaints, it seems to have little to do with Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement. So why is the BCC seemingly so intent on focusing everybody’s attention on the Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance?
Some citizens have speculated that the BCC is using the Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance as a smokescreen to draw attention away from the new Code Enforcement Ordinance and Hearings Officer Ordinance, which may be the real focus of this agenda.
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In a radio interview on KAJO on May 28, Commissioner Walker implied that the people who oppose these ordinances are misrepresenting them, and stated that the ordinances require a complaint from a member of the public before an enforcement officer is sent out. That is only partially accurate. It’s true that the Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance (2013-002) does require a complaint to be filed. However, the other three new ordinances do not. And those ordinances have the potential to pose even greater threats to rights of Josephine County citizens.
Part 2 of this series will provide an in-depth analysis of the Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance, comparing it point by point with the ordinance it replaces, which was adopted by the voters.
© 2013 - Margaret Goodwin - All Rights Reserve