Mayor, judge differ on code enforcement policies

Published 12:01 am Saturday, December 1, 2012

LAUREN WOOD | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — City of Natchez Code Enforcement Officer Anita Smith takes down an illegal sign that was attached to a utility pole Friday afternoon at the intersection of US 61 North and Palestine Road.

NATCHEZ — The City of Natchez is planning to appoint a municipal judge pro tem in an effort to prosecute litter violation cases faster, but the solution to slow code enforcement is a matter of different opinions for city officials.

Mayor Butch Brown said the city is negotiating with local lawyer Anthony Heidelberg to serve as judge pro tem.

A judge pro tem, Brown said, will allow the city to hold court specifically for litter violation cases. Brown said he has been told by Municipal Court Judge Jim Blough that Blough’s case load is too heavy to hear the cases.

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But that is not really the case, Blough said. The problem, he said, is the process through which the city is enforcing its code.

Blough said, specifically, the city’s code enforcement officers are not authorized to enter private property, and the litter violation cases are not supposed to be send to the Natchez Board of Aldermen and municipal court for prosecution.

Code enforcement officer Anita Smith said she rides through the city looking for code violations. If she spots a violation on a resident’s property, she said she will issue a courtesy notice, which gives the violator three days to correct the violation.

Smith said she will check back in three days and issue a violation letter if the problem has not been corrected.

Owners of overgrown lots, Smith said, must be given 30 days notice before a hearing regarding their violation.

The case is then sent to the board of aldermen for adjudication and then Blough for a summons to correct the violation.

Blough said according to an opinion written to the city in 2010 from Attorney General Jim Hood, code enforcement officers are not authorized the enter private property, even to ensure compliance with city code.

The opinion also states that there is no administrative warrant the city can authorize in its code to give the code enforcement officers such authority.

Even sworn police officers who are authorized to enter private property should “exercise discretion upon entering private property when the officer does not have a warrant or probable cause,” according to the opinion.

Smith said that she believed she was authorized to enter private property as a code enforcement officer.

Brown said he does not agree with the attorney general’s opinion, and he said the code enforcement officers will continue to do their job until he is informed otherwise.

“Until my hand is slapped, (the code enforcement officers) will be allowed to take care of unsafe hazards in the city,” he said.

Brown noted that a code enforcement officer does not necessarily have to enter private property to see an abandoned vehicle, overgrown grass or other code violations.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said he was not aware of the attorney general’s opinion and said he would look into whether code enforcement officers can enter private property.

Blough said the city recently brought approximately 50 litter violation cases to him for prosecution. Of those 50, he said all but a few were also pending before the board of aldermen.

The city, Blough said, should not be attempting to prosecute those violations before both the aldermen and his court.

“It may not be double jeopardy, but it’s about as close as you can get,” he said. “It has to be one or the other, you certainly can’t do them both at the same time.”

If the city wishes to prosecute litter violations in court, Blough said the best route would be to designate a sworn Natchez police officer who would issue citations for litter violations that could be prosecuted in court.

The board of aldermen, Blough said, would not be involved in that process.

The board of aldermen has been declaring overgrown and dilapidated lots nuisances and pursuing a tax lien after Natchez Public Works cleans the lot.

The tax liens must first be filed with the circuit clerk’s office before the tax collector can add the liens to the tax rolls. Brown said until about three weeks ago, that was not being done, so the city was not able to collect those liens.

The goal in appointing a judge pro tem to hear litter violation cases, Carby said, is to take the aldermen out of the process.

Carby agrees that the city must choose either to enforce code violations through the board of aldermen or municipal court, but not both.

Carby said he and the mayor will be meeting with Heidelberg and determining what specific violations will be heard in Heidelberg’s court if he decides to serve as judge pro tem.

In those discussions, which Carby said he hopes Blough is a part of, the city will determine whether a sworn police officer needs to be designated as a litter enforcement officer.

The city relocated its two code enforcement officers to the Natchez Police Department shortly after Brown took office in July. Brown said moving them to NPD would allow them to write citations, but the code enforcement officers were never sworn in as law enforcement officers.

Regardless of what method of prosecution is used, Brown said, the city’s troubles with getting residents to comply with the city are unacceptable.

“It drives property value down, and it’s something that’s costing the city so much money that we don’t have,” he said. “And it’s one where public works has to leave the operations that are normally done by those employees to go mow grass.”