COMMISSIONERS CHERRYL WALKER AND KEITH HECK MISINFORMED
by Margaret Goodwin
July 1, 2013
On June 27, the Josephine County Clerk certified petitions for four referendums to repeal four ordinances recently adopted by the Board of County Commissioners (BCC). According to our County Charter, a new ordinance doesn’t become law until 90 days after its adoption. During that period, citizens who oppose the ordinance can circulate a petition to have the ordinance referred to the voters.
On June 19, the day before the petitions were delivered to the County Clerk, Commissioner Simon Hare made a motion to withdraw the ordinances, citing the strong citizen opposition at the public hearings, and noting that a referendum would cost the county $20,000.
Commissioner Hare also pointed out that these same ordinances had been considered by several previous Boards of County Commissioners, but they hadn’t gone forward due to consistent strong opposition from the citizens. He then suggested that, since the current Board hadn’t really had an opportunity to refine the ordinances, it might make sense to take the time to do that now, and they could still move forward with them at a future date if they were so inclined.
Previous and subsequent statements by the other two Commissioners have demonstrated that, not only have they not had sufficient opportunity to refine the ordinances, they have not had sufficient opportunity to thoroughly read and understand all the provisions set forth in them.
Commissioner Keith Heck was apparently surprised to learn that the Code Enforcement Ordinance awards any collected fines to the department that issued the citation. He conceded that this was problematic, and expressed a willingness to amend the ordinance. If he’d had sufficient opportunity to thoroughly read these ordinances before voting on them, he would have been aware of this provision because it’s stated clearly in the ordinance. In fact, if he’d had sufficient opportunity to thoroughly review all of the ordinances, he might have found a number of other provisions equally, or even more, troublesome.
Commissioner Cherryl Walker has stated repeatedly that, under these ordinances, an enforcement officer cannot cite a violation without first receiving a signed complaint. However, that provision is only applicable to the Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance, and is not included in any of the other three ordinances that were passed. Had Commissioner Walker had sufficient opportunity to read all four of the ordinances, she would have certainly been aware of that. Clearly, the Commissioners need to take more time to review and fully understand these ordinances before enacting them into law.
Commissioner Walker has also repeatedly asserted that, under the current Solid Waste and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance (90-16), nuisance complaints are handled under state law, and “have to go through the circuit court, which takes many, many years and the property owner has to hire a lawyer to defend themselves.” This is completely inaccurate. Under the current nuisance ordinance, if a nuisance is not abated within ten days of the notice of violation, a hearing may be held before the Board of County Commissioners. (90-16, 8.020) The BCC does have the option of taking an alleged violation to court, “in lieu of, or in addition to” the hearing before the BCC, but that is explicitly not required under the existing ordinance. (90-16, 8.030)
Commissioner Walker has only been in office for a few months, so it’s understandable that she’s not familiar with all of our county ordinances. Nevertheless, one would expect a Commissioner to familiarize him or herself with an existing ordinance before voting to repeal it and replace it with another.
The Board of County Commissioners previously represented that the county has 50 nuisance cases currently tied up in litigation in the courts. Local attorney, Jack Swift, checked with the Court Clerk and learned that the County only has five cases in litigation, and only two of them are related to nuisance complaints. Of those two, one has been dismissed for lack of prosecution and the other had not even been filed yet when the BCC made the representation that there were 50 cases in litigation. At the Weekly Business Session on June 19, Commissioner Hare stated “I don't want to say that I was misled...”
But, clearly, he was misled, and so were the other Commissioners. And they, in turn, misled the public by repeating that misinformation.
The number of cases in litigation might not be the only facts about which the Commissioners have been misled. Given that they clearly haven’t had sufficient opportunity to read all four of the new ordinances themselves, the misrepresentations they’ve made about these ordinances might have also originated from some other source. Yet, neither Commissioner Walker nor Commissioner Heck voted to take the opportunity presented by Commissioner Hare to withdraw the ordinances until such time as they could fully review them and make any appropriate revisions.
Commissioner Walker was very emphatic that she would not change her position on them. She said a number of people have personally thanked her for taking a stand on public nuisances. She then went into great detail about her own next-door neighbor, whose property she claims has been a nuisance for 15 years. She went on to describe the weeds in their yard, the septic tank, the roof that’s leaning off their house, a mobile home with “things grown over the top of it,” satellite dishes in the back, etc., concluding with “So I am not inclined to want to change that ‘Yes’.”
It does seem that Commissioner Walker has some compelling personal reasons for supporting a more stringent nuisance ordinance, but it’s possible that her strong personal feelings about this issue may be compromising her objectivity. Perhaps, in her zeal to punish recalcitrant nuisance offenders, she has gone too far in promoting the other ordinances in this package, without having considered the full extent of their impact or implications.
After Commissioner Heck expressed his willingness to amend the Code Enforcement Ordinance, Commissioner Hare pointed out that, once an ordinance becomes law, it is not easily amended. At that point, any amendment would require two public hearings and a 90-day waiting period, just like the initial adoption of the ordinances. Nevertheless, Commissioner Heck also voted against withdrawing the ordinances to give the Commissioners a chance to review and amend them before they become law.
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At one point in the discussion, Commissioner Heck said “There's been a whole host of comments being made of just absolutely verbally painting pictures that would be, -- who would vote for something so horrendous?” Somebody who hadn’t actually read the ordinances might. And that’s why it’s critically important for every voter in Josephine County to read the actual ordinances before voting on them, and not just take someone else’s word for what’s in them. Because what you don’t know can hurt you.
Want to ask Commissioners Cherryl Walker, Keith Heck and Simon Hare about the scheme? They can be reached at the office of the County Commissioners, (541) 474-5221, Ext. 2 or by e-mail at: [email protected], and [email protected] and [email protected]
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