MURRAY — The Hazel City Council continued discussion on how the city wishes to address the issue of unkept properties within Hazel during its regular meeting Monday.
Calloway County Sheriff Sam Steger and CCSO Deputy Nicky Knight were on hand to offer some insight. This included recommendations including potential punitive measures, particularly potential jail time for residents who do not come into compliance.
In discussion during the previous month’s meeting, the issue of jail time was brought up with some council members thinking such actions went too far, while others felt it appropriate. Steger informed the council that any ordinance involving the courts would have to require jail time.
“You can’t take out jail time, it is a statute,” Steger said. “I am the one that actually charges these in the county, and you can’t take jail time out. Once you get to a criminal summons, that turns into a Class A misdemeanor, and you cannot supersede what the statute of a Class A misdemeanor is.”
The council has been looking at the most recent unkept property ordinance passed by the Calloway County Fiscal Court in previous meetings. The council has been considering what aspects of the county ordinance they would like to adopt, and which parts they might want to leave out.
The county ordinance involves a hand-delivered letter followed by an allotted time for property owners to come into compliance. After the time frame expires, a criminal summons is delivered by the sheriff and the ball moves into the court of the county attorney and court system.
Steger explained some of the workings of the county ordinance, and offered some suggestions for the city to consider. He said the city would need to start with the designation of a code enforcement officer that cannot be a member of the council or Hazel Mayor John Paschall.
“Whenever you name your officer, they need to hand-deliver those ordinance papers,” Steger said. “If you do not hand-deliver those, they have the ability to argue they didn’t receive it. Even if you send things certified mail and have them sign for it, they can still refuse to sign. If you take all of that out and hand-deliver that letter, you have your officer keep a file of when they have hand delivered that letter.”
Steger said that he has his own letter that he delivers to property owners in the county who are in violation of the ordinance.
“They have a minimum of 14 days to clean it up, but I give them no more than 30 days,” Steger said. “On that 30th day I am back at their door and if they have not cleaned up like it was explained in the ordinance, I don’t give them anymore time. I immediately go and get a criminal summons for them, and that is where your statute comes into effect, because then they fall under a Class A misdemeanor.
“It gives the court the leverage then to handle it and make them get into compliance. We have already run into this a couple of times, but if you ever give them a little bit of leverage they are going to take you for everything you’ve got.”
Council members asked if CCSO has ever extended time to anyone found in violation due to special circumstances, such as income level or age. Steger said that such considerations would be made by the court, not the officer enforcing the ordinance.
“I let the court deal with that, and it takes it off your plate,” Steger said. “The minute that you do not do something about a piece of property that someone has complained about within that time frame, they are going to be knocking down your door. If you ever give someone extra leverage besides letting the court give them that leverage, then you are setting precedent for others to ask for more time.”
Steger also said that the code officer needs to have the authority to make decisions independent of the council.
“You need to give them the authority as the code enforcement officer to act on their own,” Steger said. “Let’s say tomorrow they get a complaint, you are looking at another month before they even bring it to you. Then they have to serve the papers, then they have the 30 days; so you are at 60 days right off the bat before you can even get anywhere.
“So I would give them the authority to not only accept the complaints, but even be proactive and look for properties that are in violation.”
Knight said he felt that if the city got its ordinance ready and was active in its enforcement, he felt that others would begin to come in line.
“When you hold these first few (people accountable), then others will say, ‘Well, they made them do it, so I guess I better do it,’” Knight said. “And your citizens that keep their properties clean and neat are going to appreciate the fact that you are enforcing this ordinance and making people clean things up.”
Steger said there have already been cases where jail time was used to enforce the new ordinance in the county and that penalty involves incarceration up to one year.
“I’ve had a couple where we have already had a trial and then things got cleaned up,” Steger said. “When that judgement came down, they got themselves in gear because they knew they were going to go to jail.”
Knight reminded the council that an ordinance with no teeth would not be very effective.
“You can only threaten so much,” Knight said. “We have dealt with one for over a year. And the county attorney has given them a plea agreement and they have pushed it out until January. It will go away if he is in compliance, and if not, he is doing jail time. But he has had a year and a half to come into compliance.”
A committee designated to look at both the Hazel and county ordinances provided copies of those ordinances to council members during the Monday meeting. The council will go through that information before coming back to the discussion during next month’s meeting.
In other business, the council also approved two expenses during the Monday meeting. The first was for $825 for work on a culvert along Fourth Street north of Center Street. The second was for $1,025 to be paid to Robert Yearry for the removal of limbs and brush along city property following a series of storms that passed through the community.