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City environmental court rules defined

NATCHEZ — The city’s newly established environmental court does not have 700 backlogged cases waiting on it from municipal court, and the new court doesn’t have the independence it had initially either.

No such backlogged cases from any source exist, Municipal Court Judge Pro Tem Tony Heidelberg said, though 700 — or more — violations exist that the court may soon hear.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said at last week’s aldermen meeting that the environmental court, which the city has now established as a part of municipal court, had 700 cases to hear. When asked after the meeting how 700 cases backed up in municipal court, Carby said he did not know.

Carby said Tuesday, however, that he did not mean the cases were backed up in municipal court.

“If the implication was that (Natchez Municipal Court) Judge (Jim) Blough was not doing his job, that is certainly not the case,” he said.

Carby said he heard the 700-case figure from Heidelberg, who said he got the number from city code enforcement officer Willie B. Jones.

But those are not pending cases, Heidelberg said. They are violations that have been found by code enforcement in anticipation of the start of environmental court.

In a change from the initial discussion about establishing the new court, Carby said, the city has established the environmental court as a part of municipal court, not as a separate court.

Blough said creating such a separate court would be in violation of the city’s charter, requirements of the offices of the state auditor and attorney general.

Blough said he was left out of the discussions to appoint Heidelberg as municipal judge pro tem, but he sent a letter to Mayor Butch Brown and Carby in November saying he supported a judge pro tem.

The letter also stated that the charter would have to be amended in order for a separate environmental court to be created.

Carby said amending its charter would require state approval and eventually the governor’s signature.

“It would be sort of like amending the Constitution,” he said.

Blough said he and Heidelberg sat down recently and agreed that adding an environmental court session to municipal court would be the best solution.

Heidelberg said he consulted with Blough, who has done extensive research on the code enforcement process through municipal court.

“Judge Blough and I created, using his research as to how it was going to operate, a process and procedure to follow,” Heidelberg said.

That procedure would involve giving violators notice through the code enforcement officers and offering up to 14 days for the violation to be corrected. If the violation is not corrected, the code enforcement officer may sign an affidavit that would then bring the matter before a municipal court judge.

“That would most likely come to me,” Heidelberg said.

Heidelberg was specifically appointed as judge pro tem to hear cases involving overgrown lots, abandoned vehicles, litter and other environmental issues.

Heidelberg would then approve the issuance of a citation, and a police officer would accompany a code enforcement officer to serve the citation to a violator.

Following the service, Heidelberg said, an arraignment date for the violator would be set.

“At that time, the person can come in and either admit to the wrongdoing or request a trial date,” he said. “The trial would be at a later date, probably two weeks following that hearing.”

As the municipal court judge, Blough may likely choose to assign the environmental cases to Heidelberg. But Heidelberg said he will also be hearing other municipal court cases in the event Blough is sick or on vacation.

The fines for environmental court will be assessed and collected just as all other municipal court cases, Heidelberg said. A portion of the fines will go to the state and the city as they always have.

Aldermen have requested that the money that is a net gain from the environmental court be set aside in a separate account that could be used to clean up properties and also reimburse Natchez Public Works for the work they have done to clean up derelict properties.

Blough said the state auditor’s office has twice expressed concerns about the separate collection of fines and depositing money into a separate account.

Carby said the money from the fines will go into the general fund as the city’s municipal court fines always has.

“They would be taken in as any other fine,” Carby said. “In terms of accounting, it is my understanding that they could tag the fine with the type of violation it is, so that you could track how much money is coming in from the court.

“It’s more of a way to monitor the effectiveness of the court.”

Carby said the name and concept of the environmental court is modeled after Gulfport’s environmental court.

Heidelberg is hoping the court is so effective that he does not have a job in a couple of years.

“The whole concept is that in about two years, I will not have a job,” Heidelberg said. “Eventually people are going to get tired of paying fines.”

Those who cannot afford to maintain their property or who are not able to keep up their property would presumably not be able to afford to pay fines.

Heidelberg said that property owners who meet “rigid criteria” will have the opportunity to be assisted by various civic organizations, including fraternities and Masonic lodges, who have committed to assist in cleaning up the city.

“Once those properties are identified, these organization will donate their time to clean these properties,” Heidelberg said. “We can’t take care of everybody’s property, especially those who refuse to clean it up.”