By Jane Smith
Delray Beach commissioners voted 3-2 on Nov. 20 to keep the city’s all-volunteer code enforcement board, but they will hire an outside attorney to advise board members during their hearings.
Commissioners were surprised to learn that code enforcement cases routinely are presented to the board with a 90 percent reduction of the fines proposed by staff. In most cases, the board approves what the city staff requests.
Because fines can accrue in the time it takes to appear before the board— often up to 120 days — “the fines could be as high as $20,000” by the time the hearing is held, said Michael Coleman, director of the Community Improvement Department, which oversees code enforcement in Delray Beach. “We are not trying to make money on it, but to achieve compliance.”
The code enforcement officers need to present “a straight calculation of the fines” and allow the code board to determine whether a reduction is needed, Mayor Cary Glickstein said. He asked the city manager to make sure that happens.
City Attorney Max Lohman, who represents other cities including Lantana, brought up the idea of hiring a special magistrate to hear code enforcement violations. He wanted to take “the subjectivity out of the process. … Lay people don’t understand the law.”
Robert Resnick, appointed to the code enforcement board in July, told commissioners that the board is enhanced by having residents serve on it, that they enforce the standards and the goal is compliance, not punishment.
He called his service “democracy in action.”
At the City Commission meeting, Lohman also talked about a troubling October meeting when he represented the city in front of the code enforcement board.
“They never read Ch. 162 (of Florida Statutes on code enforcement), but they are appointed to enforce it,” Lohman said. He had to explain what the board members could do in a code enforcement case involving a foreclosure. The action can be taken on rental properties, but not ones with homestead protection, he said.
Resnick, a retired Army colonel who served as a judge advocate general, understands Lohman’s viewpoint but disagrees with his characterization of the October code board meeting.
“The September meeting was canceled because Hurricane Irma” resulted in power failures citywide, Resnick said after the commission meeting. That cancellation led to a long October meeting agenda for the code board.
“People started to talk about the merits of their cases, not the criteria in the law,” Resnick said. It took longer, but the board eventually made it through its agenda, he said.
Vice Mayor Jim Chard, who voted to keep the volunteer board, equated going to the special magistrate system with having a “gun for hire.” That person would not be sensitive to the city’s historic districts, he said.
Commissioner Shelly Petrolia also voted to keep the board. “They are following what the city is recommending,” she said. “If the board doesn’t work out, we can always switch.”
She favored bringing in an outside attorney to advise the board during its hearings. That way, the city attorney’s office could avoid a conflict of interest because a staff lawyer presents the cases and another staff lawyer advises the board. That situation could be problematic if a case were appealed. To date no cases have been appealed.
“We are saving money by luck,” Lohman said.
Commissioner Mitch Katz said he could see the pros and cons of having a code board of city residents. He voted to keep it.
The mayor wanted to follow the staff recommendation to hire a special magistrate to achieve compliance.
Deputy Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson also supported hiring a special magistrate. “We need a better system,” she said, with a professional code enforcement process.