Council members mixed on possible fee to appeal property code violations

By Brandi Makuski

City council members on Monday couldn’t reach a consensus on a proposal to install a new fee for appealing a property maintenance violation.

The fee proposal was listed in the June 10 meeting packet but contained no background information. Neighborhood Improvement Coordinator Mark Kordus said a fee of $25 per appeal was internally discussed—a fee that was refundable if an appellant won.

Mike Phillips (District 10), who chairs the city’s public protection committee, said the discussion-only item was a good topic for conversation because residents regularly file appeals, hoping for a waiver of a city service fee, or third-party contractor costs, for violations not corrected in the allotted time. But often, appellants do not appear in person to argue their case.

“A lot of work goes into this beforehand, and people don’t show up; they just hand [the appeals form] in,” Phillips said.

Mayor Mike Wiza said he believes at least some of the appeals are made “just because they have the right to do it” whether they believe they have a reasonable argument or not.

“What the fee would do is allow them to have some skin in the game and prevent, I don’t want to say frivolous, but less-then-evidenced appeals,” Wiza said Monday. “If I really think, ‘I didn’t do this’, then at least I can show up at the meeting.”

Almost as if to underline Wiza’s point, two appeals were listed on the committee’s June 10 agenda; neither appellant was present at the meeting, yet both included documentation supporting the violation notice and subsequent fees charged by the city.

Wiza also referenced a previous committee meeting with four appeals on the agenda, also with no appellants in attendance. But because the appeals listed on the agenda, the committee had to discuss each one, which he said wasted time.

But some on the council were unmoved by the argument. Councilwoman Polly Dalton (District 9) said she was “disappointed” to see the proposed fee come forward.

“I think, first and foremost, it puts an undue financial burden on residents to go through a process of appealing,” Dalton said. “And whether or not $25, or $20, is substantial, and whether or not you get it back if [the appeal] is legitimate, if you are one of the 50 percent of households that are income-constrained and living paycheck-to-paycheck, it makes a difference whether you put $25 in to appeal something.”

Dalton, who was elected to her first term in April, said even after her short time on the council she’s observed “at least two-thirds” of appeals alleging some type of miscommunication from the city’s code enforcement office.

“To some extent, we should almost be encouraging their appealing because it means they’re getting involved with city processes and better understanding,” she said.

District 3 Councilwoman Cindy Nebel agreed, saying the city’s service fee was already a burden, calling the appeals process “an opportunity to educate” property owners.

“I think it’s so important for people to understand how much further this goes and what it means to the city,” she said.

Alder Cathy Dugan (District 8) agreed with a small fee for appeals but said she hoped for more communication from the code enforcement office.

“I think they (the public) don’t understand. They don’t understand why it’s happening this way, and they need more time,” she said. “I want to see people here who want to appeal.”

Council President Meleesa Johnson (District 5) also called out the code enforcement office, saying there was a “serious lack of connection between our community and what the ordinances are,” adding the position of Neighborhood Improvement Coordinator was supposed to be more of an outreach role.

“When we gave permission for this position, it was really to be that community resource, to provide that information,” Johnson said. “We need to do some more outreach and communication because it is kind of lacking. The appeals process is really the public’s only chance to be heard in public. I understand what you’re saying, and the amount of time that goes into this, but I cannot support a fee for our citizen’s time to be heard.”

Dugan suggested the city require an appellant to appear for hearings, but City Attorney Andrew Beveridge said the city doesn’t have that authority, though he noted in the city’s municipal court process, no-shows are ruled against automatically, something known as a default judgment.

Beveridge said he’s also been working on a draft ordinance for a “generalized city appeals board” that would hear appeals for “pretty much any action of the city that you were directly impacted by,” with the exception of zoning and property taxes, among other select areas.

The new appeals board could be comprised of the city council—or some derivation of it, Beveridge said, or another group of people entirely. That discussion would likely come forward at the July public protection committee, he said.

As a way to encourage appellants to appear, Wiza suggested including a default judgment clause in the city’s appeals process, similar to the procedure described by Beveridge. He also added a new appeals committee could meet at scattered times to better accommodate working residents.

Dalton spoke multiple times against the proposal, at one point referring to it as “ridiculous,” and calling it “an incredibly lazy way of not wanting to do the work with these appeals”.

Instead, Dalton suggested city staff could spend time seeking “neighborhood champions” to help stressed homeowners complete repairs, or better connect them with resources for assistance.

“I would not support one more minute of staff time considering whether we propose a fee for this,” she said.

Phillips said in his mind, the answer was clear: hitting a property owner “in the pocketbook” was the best way to get compliance with city codes.

“Let’s face it…there’s three, four, five, percent of the people are…perpetrators—the ones putting couches on the lawn, not shoveling. But the rest of us are paying for the staff time,” he said.

The discussion lasted about 20 minutes. It was not immediately clear if the topic would return to a committee for either further discussion, or consideration of a draft ordinance.