Code violation notices call ordinance into question

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Port St. Joe city commissioners authorized the mailing of two code enforcement letters on Oct.  19.  Just two weeks later, the residents’ responses have called into question whether the city’s code enforcement legislation is still clear and relevant in 2021. 

Commissioner for Group IV Scott Hoffman called an emergency meeting on Friday, Nov. 5, after the two residents expressed concerns over the letters’ wording. 

 Their chief complaint, Hoffman said, was that the letters did not clearly stare what the residents’ exact transgressions were. With the wording as it stands, the commissioner said, he felt it was unethical to proceed with enforcing the violations. He recommended the wording be amended to prevent confusion in future cases. 

 “On Tuesday, I apologized for having issues with the very letter that I supported,” Hoffman said, referring to the city’s regularly scheduled meeting Nov. 2, where the commissioner first voiced his concerns.  

 But when you look at the language that they were charged with, and the exact language on the very violation summary, in my mind it’s unclear. It's not precise. It's not to where I feel comfortable in saying, ‘Yes, you should have known that you couldn't do this,'" he said.

The wording in question has to do with a city ordinance regulating operation of a business out of a residenceBoth residents have received business licensing and have signed binding agreements to follow the city’s code enforcement ordinance. 

Clinton McCahillthe city’s attorney, said he and Hoffman discussed the wording of the letters prior to the meeting. He stood by the language the city used, saying it was legally binding. 

 “It is my opinion that the board voted to direct the staff to send a violation notice, and that is what they did,” he said. “I believe the city has a code enforcement process; I think that should be followed through. I also think the violation notice has legal merit under our current land development regulation.” 

Despite this, commissioners all agreed the wording of the letters, and of the ordinances behind them, would have to be addressed in the coming months. However, there was some deliberation over how exactly to proceed with the two violations at hand. 

 Mayor Rex Buzzett said he felt the violations enforceable given the attorney’s advice and recommended the city proceed with the code enforcement process. 

There’s a process for code violations to run its course,” he said. “And that’s the way it should be, without us interfering. 

“So, let’s just try to stick to the ordinance the way it’s written... anybody that’s got a code violation can either correct it or let it run its course through a process that we’ve got set up, and then we can deal with it after that.” 

Commissioner for Group II David Ashbrook said commissioners might benefit from a judicial opinion on the violations in their drafting changes to the ordinance. 

The process gives him the right to go and talk to a judge, in this instance, or a magistrate to see if they can figure it out,” he said. “If it comes back where we need to make changes, which I do think we need to add clarity at a minimum, then we go from there.” 

Hoffman remained steady in his opinion the violations should be terminated to avoid legal repercussions. He said he had reasonable certainty both residents would take these issues to court. 

In the end, the commissioners voted 3-1 to allow the violations to proceed through the judicial system, where they hope to receive some more clarity to guide a future rewording of the code enforcement ordinance and violation notices. Hoffman voted nay.

They also instructed the city attorney to look at the ordinance and make suggestions to improve clarity in the coming city meetings. 

 Commissioner for Group III, Brett Lowry, was absent from the meeting due to a death in the family. 

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