Hendry shifts to watchfulness on code enforcement

CLEWISTON — After digesting a comprehensive update on staff’s recent focus toward putting some teeth into Hendry County code enforcement, a majority of the county commissioners seemed almost ready to go with a different approach after they’d spent an hour talking about it on Tuesday, Jan. 8, at City Hall here.

Except that with a new appointee as of mid-December, Darrell R. Hill, now sitting as the 20th Circuit Court’s county judge for Hendry, all the commissioners except Karson Turner wanted to give their current processes at least a couple of hearings before him to see how he will apply the current laws, and accommodate and validate the county’s efforts to expedite long-pending cases.

No cases were heard during December because of the personnel change, but of 14 handled the previous month by a temporary county judge, fully 10 were decided or resolved and only four are back before the court. County Board Chairman Mitchell Wills said, “I’d call that a win.”

“Almost,” pronounced Commissioner Darrell Harris, and Michael Swindle chimed in, “I would, too.”

But Commissioner Turner, at whose insistence the county board’s been considering for many months that perhaps the special magistrate approach that many other counties use would work better for Hendry, kept pressing them that it was time to take the leap. “Blight is growing in Hendry County; it’s not shrinking,” he repeated.

Staff describe other options
Planning and Community Development Director Margaret Emblidge and County Attorney Mark Lapp submitted a 13-page report laying out Hendry County’s options, produced after the board’s discussion was continued from their Dec. 11 meeting. Ms. Emblidge said they’d met with Mr. Turner to review the information.

“We talked about the unsafe structures and blighted properties, the recommendations that we had regarding there being opportunities to revise the current time frame and shortening it for that process, and also looking at additional requirements in the code for property maintenance,” she explained. “We also talked about foreclosures and the special assessment lien process as opposed to the uniform method of collection and provided you backup documents to discuss the special magistrate in comparison to the other counties that we chose as examples, being Charlotte, DeSoto and Okeechobee counties.” Ms. Emblidge then opened up discussion.

Commissioner Harris first wanted to know whether, if they stayed with the current system and let the new county judge show how he’ll enforce the codes, “then if that didn’t work out can we always come back and change it?”

“Absolutely,” Ms. Emblidge answered. “We have a brand new judge in town … and I’d like to give him a shot at it,” Mr. Harris said.
Mr. Turner signaled his dissatisfaction. “Mr. Chair, I’m 180 degrees the other way. In the 10 years that I’ve been a commissioner, we’ve allowed the county judge to handle it, we’ve had multiple county judges that have handled it and they’re not.”

Other counties’ systems cited
He said that of the examples staff gave for comparison, “everybody has a special magistrate.” “Not everybody,” Mr. Harris retorted. “Charlotte has three and DeSoto and Okeechobee both have one,” Mr. Turner answered. Further, he said there might be an opportunity to join efforts.
“I know that Glades County has … at least a majority of their commission has, shared interest with me of talking about the ability to have a special magistrate that would work maybe in both of our counties to help reduce costs or the frequency of them coming over and be able to clump more cases together — and it may be something that we could get a better rate if we were to issue that request for proposals or whatever it may be,” Mr. Turner said. “I know that the City of Clewiston already has a special magistrate process.” In fact, their city commissioners voted to hire one just the night before.

“I’d also like to add that … the county judge currently hears the entire docket from A to Z … some significant things along with code enforcement that they have to deal with, and this doesn’t really rise to any of the front burners, in my professional opinion. That’s why you don’t see any of the motivation.

“And so I would just urge us to engage this process. We haven’t ever done it, and I think the time is now, Commissioner Turner urged.

Mr. Harris asked Ms. Emblidge whether she had a personal opinion on what the county should do, but she demurred. Then Mr. Turner said, “Do you have a professional opinion about it?” After giving her a few moments, he added, “Your silence is deafening.”

Chairman Wills interjected: “Before you do throw her on the spot … I can say that I originally was the one that brought this up. There’s quite a few things that they (special magistrates) do not do. They do not have a budget set aside for the cleaning or the demolitions. I don’t agree with that. We have so much blight that if we did not have that budget, we couldn’t even maintain what we do have.”

Mr. Turner pointed out that the county is paying “hard costs” of lawn mowing, property cleanup, demolitions and even the enforcement process itself that could be traded for what he contended would be the lesser costs of employing a magistrate. “I think that our judges are overwhelmed … and I think that hiring a special magistrate says to everyone, ‘We are putting an emphasis on this process!’”

There was a long back-and-forth about the costs. Mr. Turner insisted the county was paying too much upfront when they could be collected on the back end; others disputed whether a magistrate would be less pricey.

Give changes a chance, Byrd says
Commissioner Emma Byrd jumped in to point out that the commission last April told staff to make some changes and that properties now were being cleaned and later were sold. “We’re not giving them the opportunity to finish what we asked them to do in the first place … and then bring this back,” she said.

Mr. Harris and others asked about the timing of when cases go to the judge and how long it takes to get results. Learning that the judge hears them just once a month, he said that was good, and Mr. Turner was incredulous. “You think that’s good?!”

Then Mr. Harris wanted to know how many cases would go before the judge at his first hearing, Jan. 31. It was 35 cases on 22 properties, said Ms. Emblidge. “That’ll be a real good test,” he said.

“I’m not against a magistrate; I’m the one that brought it up, so I’m for it. I just want to see what happens,” Chairman Wills said.
Commissioner Swindle tried to sum up both sides as it became apparent the board would not act to change the system at this point.

“I couldn’t agree more with the whole conversation. We’ve all been living it, and Commissioner Turner’s been beating us over the head with it, and it took me too long to open my eyes and see that it’s exactly right: We feel the long-reaching far tentacles of this in every aspect of our community,” he said.

Mr. Swindle commended staff for “bringing it to where you have,” saying he thought everything had gotten better since early 2018. He added, “I would love to … get our staff’s feedback from how that judge handled it” after at least the first hearing this month. The rest of the board, and Ms. Emblidge, wanted to give him until at least the February hearing, which is scheduled for the 21st.

But, Mr. Swindle said, he’s ready to move forward. “It’s gone on too long, and it’s affecting too much — everything from land values to schools, you name it. I don’t think there’s anyone that doesn’t agree with what needs to happen … if we don’t get the results we want … I’ll back you up 100 percent,” he said to Mr. Turner.

Chairman Wills pointed out, “Also, Commissioner Turner, on what you said about Glades County, it would be very interesting to see if we can become allies with them on this.”

Commissioner Swindle added, “And let’s be thinking outside the box, please, because if we have to move forward with the magistrate, how are we going to fund that? Because there’s going to be some upfront funding.”

The commissioners agreed to have the matter on their meeting agenda again for Feb. 26.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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