The East Bethel City Council in July adopted an administrative citation program with the intention of using fines instead of court appearances to bring properties into compliance with city codes.
The next step to implementing the program was to adopt a fee schedule and choose an administrative hearing officer who not be associated with the city of East Bethel and would be responsible for listening to the city’s point of view and a resident’s point of view in situations where the resident appeals a city administrative fine.
The council made its decisions on these two items Aug. 26.
The decision to hire James Hoeft, a local attorney in the Barna, Guzy & Steffen office, was not controversial. The council approved Hoeft as the designated administrative hearing officer on a 4-0 vote based on his experience of working with other cities such as Blaine. Mayor Steve Voss abstained.
On the other hand, the fee schedule discussion was far from a slam dunk.
City staff believed it would have been fair for the city to charge a resident $125 for a first ordinance violation, $250 for a second violation and $500 for a third violation. According to City Administrator Jack Davis, the escalating fines would only happen if a resident did not resolve an issue in a timely manner. There are 30-day timelines between the subsequent fines, but Davis said the city would be flexible if extensions are needed due to extenuating circumstances, such as weather.
Council Member Suzanne Erkel proposed decreasing the fines to $50 for the first violation, $100 for the second violation and $300 for the third violation. She did support city staff’s proposal that any fine could be doubled if a property owner reoffends within 12 months of the most recent citation for the applicable violation.
Erkel garnered support from Council Members Tim Harrington and Tom Ronning, which was just enough to adopt these lower fees. Mayor Steve Voss and Council Member Randy Plaisance believed the higher fees proposed by staff were justifiable.
“Our residents are lower to middle income, and this is too steep for a lot of them,” Erkel said of the fee levels proposed by city staff.
Ronning didn’t feel a majority of East Bethel residents would support the level of fees staff proposed for the administrative citations.
“It seems like there would be a more humane way to get compliance than to put this type of cost on someone,” Ronning said.
Voss reminded the council members that city staff time has a price that someone has to cover. By lowering the fees, they passed along the extra cost to the general tax base. He added that the purpose of this administrative citation program was to get away from misdemeanor-level citations that lead to required court appearances and higher expenses and time commitments for everyone.
“Do you think we should just keep charging $50 every time?” the mayor asked. “They’ll never fix it up. They’ll just pay the fine. The whole objective is to come into compliance.”
A person is entitled to appeal a fine, but there would be a base charge of $75 to appeal. Additional hearing expenses would be capped at $300 and would be paid by the losing party.
Davis said the administrative hearing fees only come into play if a resident appeals a fine, and he said city staff strives to be flexible on giving time extensions.
Ronning expressed discomfort with the city ordinance not specifying in writing what situations would lead to time extensions. He noted this can lead to arbitrary decision-making that can change when there is staff and council turnover.
Davis believes the city would be hard-pressed to spell out every scenario in the city ordinance for time extension exemptions.
“I don’t know if you really want to get into a written policy on that because you can never cover everything,” he said. “No matter what you do, whoever comes after us can change things back to however they want them.”
Davis added that the city administrative citations and the hearing fees would be reviewed annually when the council votes on the city’s entire fee schedule.
“I don’t have a problem with this, simply because the person that is in violation (of a city ordinance) has time to get this resolved,” Plaisance said.