WHAT THE GRANTS PASS DAILY COURIER FAILED TO REPORT
by Margaret Goodwin
July 5, 2013
Josephine County, Oregon. —A group called Citizens Saving Private Property has succeeded in gathering enough signatures to refer four recently passed ordinances to the voters in November. The four ordinances at the center of the controversy are a Solid Waste & Nuisance Abatement Ordinance (2013-002), a Code Enforcement Ordinance (2013-003), a Hearings Officer Ordinance (2013-004), and an Environmental Health Ordinance (2013-005).
Proponents of these ordinances refer to them collectively as “nuisance ordinances,” even though only one of the four ordinances has anything to do with nuisance abatement. The others establish a new system of bureaucratic justice for the enforcement, adjudication, and punishment of all county codes, ordinances, rules, and regulations.
The Code Enforcement Ordinance provides a financial incentive for county departments to seek out and cite code violations by awarding any collected fines to the department that issues the citation. This ordinance does not require any complaint from a member of the public to initiate an investigation. This ordinance also authorizes the county to impose a fine for up to twice the value of a person’s property on which a violation occurs, if the property owner makes any profit through the violation. For analysis of other controversial provisions in this ordinance, see County Government vs. Citizens, Part 3.
The Hearings Officer Ordinance authorizes county appointees, with no legal training or experience, to act as judge and jury, and to pass criminal judgments on citizens for code violations, while suspending the traditional rules regarding evidence and witnesses that are observed in a true court of law. The hearings officers “serve at the pleasure of the Board of County Commissioners.” Petitioners for the referendum believe that, when a person hired to act as an impartial judge in a case between two parties is employed by one of the parties to the case, a reasonable person might expect their impartiality to be compromised. For more on this ordinance and the Environmental Health Ordinance, see County Government vs. Citizens, Part 4.
These four ordinances are going to be referred to the voters, and will be on the ballot in the November election. It’s absolutely critical that the citizens fully understand the content of these ordinances before voting on them. The descriptions of the ordinances in the ballot measures sound innocuous enough, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. And some of the details of these ordinances are particularly onerous.
Unfortunately, we cannot simply trust that our Commissioners are representing the ordinances accurately. Commissioners Walker and Heck have made public statements that demonstrate that they, themselves, are misinformed about significant details of the ordinances. Having inherited these ordinances from a previous Board, perhaps they have not had sufficient opportunity to review them thoroughly. (See Commissioners Walker and Heck Misinformed.)
Unfortunately, as well, we cannot rely on our local newspaper to provide the type of investigative reporting that such a controversial issue demands. Rather than reading the actual ordinances and reporting on the provisions in them that have given rise to the controversy, the Daily Courier has chosen to report as fact whatever representations Commissioner Walker has made about them.
Thomas Jefferson said "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press," because only a free and impartial press can hold government accountable to the people. But, when the press chooses to simply propagate what they're told by government officials, without verifying the accuracy of those representations, it abdicates its responsibility to the citizens.
On April 18, a front page article in the Daily Courier declared “Josephine County residents who are fed up with junk-filled yards may find some relief now that county commissioners have adopted four ordinances to increase enforcement of solid waste, hazardous and nuisance violations.” Had the reporter taken the time to actually read the ordinances, she would have known that only one of the four ordinances is about “solid waste, hazardous and nuisance violations.” The others have much broader scope and impacts.
In an April 20 editorial, titled “County wise to provide teeth for junk restrictions,” editor Dennis Roler wrote “Ordinances 2013-002 through 2013-005 set up a system to handle junk-filled yards and other violations without the high cost of suing offenders and taking them to state Circuit Court.” His editorial perpetuated the myth that the current nuisance ordinance requires violations to be litigated in court. In fact the current nuisance ordinance, which the Commissioners just voted to repeal, provides for nuisance cases to be heard by the Board of County Commissioners. (90-16, 8.020) Mr. Roler did not invent the myth that the current ordinance requires offenders to be taken to the state circuit court. He simply believed it because a misinformed County Commissioner said it was so.
An article in the Daily Courier, published on June 20, reported "Josephine County Commissioner Keith Heck said he was ‘mystified’ by a proposal made by Commission Chairman Simon Hare Wednesday morning. Hare asked his fellow commissioners to repeal four recently-adopted ordinances relating to nuisance code enforcement.” The article went on to say “Heck reminded Hare that in January, commissioners pored over information, developed rules and held public meetings on the regulations. Now you're saying 'put these into oblivion?' Heck queried.”
What Commissioner Heck literally said is “When Commissioner Walker and myself, we were seated on January 7, and we were presented on January 17 with these ordinances that were already developed by the previous board, -- had been suspended in December because they did not want to vote on going ahead with it, -- and now there is the suggestion that we put these into abeyance, so I'm just mystified by that.” (Commissioner Heck says this at 1:43:00 in the video of the meeting, posted on the County web site)
Commissioner Heck made no mention of the Commissioners poring over information and developing rules in January with respect to these ordinances. In fact, he explicitly stated that the ordinances had been developed by the previous Board, which had declined to pursue them. Commissioner Hare stated later in the meeting that this Board hasn't really had an opportunity to refine these ordinances at all.
On June 28, the Courier published another front page story, titled “Nuisance ordinances to be on Nov. 5 ballot,” again representing the whole package as “nuisance ordinances” and ignoring the broader implications of the Code Enforcement and Hearings Officer Ordinances. The article says “The four petitions seek to repeal recently adopted ordinances dealing with nuisance property, enforcement of the nuisance ordinance, the creation of a compliance officer's position and invoking state laws as county ordinances.” The article omits any mention of the fact that two of these ordinances establish a whole new system of bureaucratic enforcement, adjudication, and punishment for all county ordinances and codes, -- not just nuisance offenses.
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In any casual conversation with the petitioners against the four ordinances, they’re quick to explain that the Code Enforcement and Hearings Officer Ordinances are far more disturbing than the nuisance ordinance. They even accuse the Board of County Commissioners of using the nuisance ordinance as a smokescreen for the others. Yet, whenever these individuals have been interviewed in the Daily Courier, the quotes selected for publication have referred only to the nuisance ordinance, as though that’s the only issue at stake.
So do not look to the local media for accurate information on these ordinances. And do not accept the innocuous sounding summaries in the voter’s pamphlet. Do not take the word of the County Commissioners who voted to pass the ordinances without having thoroughly reviewed them. And don’t take my word on them, either.
Do yourself and your county a favor and read the actual ordinances before voting on them. Please do your civic duty and take the time to be an informed voter this November. The ordinances may no longer be posted on the county web site, but you can read them here.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Daily Courier Editor Dennis Roller at: 541-474-3717. Or, E-Mail: email@example.com
County Government vs. Citizens
2- Commissioners Cherryl Walker and Keith Heck Misinformed
3- Commissioner Cherryl Walker, Kangaroo Court and Big Fines
4- Josephine County, Oregon: Sad Failure of Central Planning
5- Bureaucrat Cherry Walker - The Bully in Josephine County Government
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