Lincoln aldermen debate future of code hearing officer and city court

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[March 20, 2017]  LINCOLN - On the list of action items for this week’s voting session of the Lincoln City Council will be three possible motions pertaining to the city code hearing officer and the possible dissolution of city court.

The City Court was established in 2014 as the first component of implementing a city impound ordinance for vehicles. The request came before the council from then Police Chief Ken Greenslate with support from the former Mayor Keith Snyder and then City Administrator Sue McLaughlin.

At that time Greenslate and the others explained that the city could establish an ordinance wherein vehicles could be impounded in certain criminal cases. However to do this the city also had to offer a means for the owner of the vehicle to quickly get their vehicle out of impound. This would best be done by establishing a Code Hearing Officer and holding City Court at City Hall when necessary.

Lincoln aldermen supported the establishment of the city court and a code hearing officer, and Edward J. Schoenbaum of Bloomington was hired to fill the position. A one-year contract was signed by the city and Schoenbaum and City Court was established.

However, the original proposal that the hearing officer be used for impounded vehicles fell through when the city could not find an adequate space to securely impound the vehicles. The hearing officer would not be utilized for that purpose, but he was utilized for other ordinance and code violations coming primarily from the building and safety office.

This year, in late January/early February discussions began about the city court when Alderman Rick Hoefle questioned the monthly bills being submitted for payment by Schoenbaum. Those bills were at that time included in the “payment of bills” portion of the consent agenda. Hoefle asked that they by pulled from that agenda for further discussion.

In the past, bills removed from the consent agenda are voted on later in that same evening, but this was not the case in this instance. The bills were set aside, and to date, have not been paid.

On February 14th at the first Committee of the Whole meeting for the month, Alderman Tracy Welch questioned whether or not the city actually needed a code hearing officer or a city court process.

Welch said that his take on the program was that it was costing the city money and the taxpayers, plus it was increasing the work load of the city clerk’s office. He noted that the county already has a hearing process, and taxpayers are paying for that as well as providing money for a city hearing process. He didn’t feel that was fair to Lincoln residents.

Hoefle also questioned the amount being paid to the hearing officer, especially the portion of the monthly bill that appeared to be paying Schoenbaum $100 per hour for driving time from Lincoln to Bloomington and back.

Jonie Tibbs questioned who reviews the bill for accuracy. City Administrator Clay Johnson said the bill goes first to the Building and Safety Office, then the city clerk, and finally the city council for review and approval.

Michelle Bauer that night said that she would like to hear from City Attorney Blinn Bates regarding the value of the hearing officer and how the process works. On that evening Bates was not present for the meeting, but would later respond to Bauer’s request.

At the March 6th voting session, Bates did comment on the city court process, and aldermen discussed their feelings about going forward with maintaining the city court process.

Bates began by recounting the history of the position, and went on to talk about how it is currently operating and how it is of benefit to the city.

Bates said that currently the code hearing officer is hearing nuisance cases related to the building and safety office. However, changes in cannabis and drug paraphernalia laws will have an impact in the future on the duties performed by Schoenbaum.

Bates discussed the convenience of the hearing officer because of the flexibility in the scheduling. He explained that he has a limited amount of time every other week to take cases before the circuit judge. He noted that there are times when a defendant arrives just before his or her hearing time, allowing Bates no opportunity to talk with the person before going in front of the judge. He said that often times the defendant and the city attorney, if time allows, can work through the charges, the defendant can pay the fine and avoid appearing at the hearing, thus avoiding the extra court costs.

Bates said in City Court, he always has the opportunity to work with the defendant before he or she goes before the Code Hearing Officer because he is not bound to such a strict time schedule on hearing day.

Welch said he felt like the process was double charging Lincoln taxpayers. He said the taxpayers are paying for a county court system that works, and now they are also paying for an ordinance court system. He didn’t feel that was something the city should be forcing on its local taxpayers.

Bates said that he felt the Ordinance Court actually benefitted the defendants because they are not paying court costs to the county.

Bates also spoke about the payments to the code officer. He said that the rates the officer is charging the city of Lincoln are reasonable.

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Bates said that he felt the city now had two issues to consider. First, they needed to decide if they want to keep the Ordinance Hearing process, and secondly they needed to decide if they wanted to keep Schoenbaum. He also cautioned that if the city does away with the city court system, it will create a larger backlog for the city attorney in the circuit courts. Cases will not be heard as quickly.

Mayor Marty Neitzel asked about the revenues and expenses attached to the city process. Johnson said that for the city’s 2016-17 fiscal year, the city has collected $6,990 and has paid out about $3,000, so the city had a gross profit of about $4,000.

Going back to the comment from Bates about the backlog, Welch said he had spoken with people at the county and had been told that there would be no time issues, and no backlog would be created. Welch said he didn’t see how this could be an issue because the number of cases coming before the code hearing officer, and the number in past years going before the circuit judge were pretty consistent. He noted 131 cases in 2010, 150 in 2011, 162 in 2012. In the 2016-17 fiscal year, Welch said that 84 cases had gone before the Code Hearing Officer and 70 had gone before the circuit courts, making for a total of 154.

Bates went back to the cost of court to offenders. He said in the City Court the offenders will pay less than they do in Circuit Court. He said the cost comparisons were about $75 in City Court compared to as much as $180 in the Circuit Court.

Hoefle asked if all these issues could be avoided if offenders just paid their fines on time. Blinn said yes, and with the city system, court can be avoided by making the payment, but in the circuit court system, that is not always the case.

Bates and Johnson then talked about how the process works for city court with violators. Upon noting a violation, the building and safety officer sends out a letter with a citation and the fine.

In this fiscal year, 848 letters have been sent. If the offender does not respond to this first letter, a second letter is sent out. This year 146 follow-up letters had to be mailed.

Finally, if the offender does not respond, he or she is ordered to appear before the Code Hearing Officer. This year, there were 84 such orders issued. Of those, 67 came in to the Building and Safety Office and paid their fine, therefore eliminating the need to appear in City Court.

What that came down to then, was of all the violations in the year, only eight percent actually made it to City Court.

Steve Parrott questioned the value of something that was being used only eight percent of the time. Johnson said there are other benefits to having the code hearing process.

Moving on, Welch asked about the unpaid invoices. At the moment, the code hearing officer is working without a contract. There are some odd circumstances around the expired contract that include a typographical error on the amount to be paid for travel time to and from Lincoln. Welch said it appeared that perhaps the city was waiting for the new contract before it sent the checks. He wondered if there were plans to pay Schoenbaum retroactively.

Johnson reminded the council that the invoices for Schoenbaum had been removed from the consent agenda and the aldermen did not move to vote on them separately or put them back in with the regular payment of bills. Therefore, they have gone unpaid.

In regard to the error in the expired contract. Johnson explained later that the contract had stated that Schoenbaum would be paid for time and travel to and from Lincoln from his home in Bloomington. The contract stated that amount would not exceed ten-dollars. The typographical error was that the contract should have said the amount for time and travel would not exceed $100.

At last week’s Committee of the whole meeting, the council decided there would be three motions, one separate from the other two which would go hand in hand.

The motions will be first to pay Schoenbaum for the backlog of invoices.

Then there will be motions to decide whether or not to maintain the code hearing process. If that motions fails the voting will stop there. If it passes, the council will then be asked to vote on a new contract for the existing code officer.

[Nila Smith]

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