UPPER MARLBORO – Prince George’s County looks to speed up code enforcement proceedings with a “rocket docket” approach. On Sept. 20, the county council’s Transportation, Housing and the Environment (THE) committee voted 4-0 on a “favorable with amendments” report of CB-64-2017, which creates a new procedure for administrative hearings on violations of housing and property […]
UPPER MARLBORO – Prince George’s County looks to speed up code enforcement proceedings with a “rocket docket” approach.
On Sept. 20, the county council’s Transportation, Housing and the Environment (THE) committee voted 4-0 on a “favorable with amendments” report of CB-64-2017, which creates a new procedure for administrative hearings on violations of housing and property standards. The bill was drafted at the request of County Executive Rushern Baker, III, and representatives from his office explained the goal was to help county residents get faster action on their code complaints.
“We want to get faster results in the community, especially now with the focus being, at least initially, on kind of the nuisance issues: tall grass and weeds, dilapidated structures, refuse in the grass, those kind of things,” said Brad Frome, assistant deputy chief administrative officer for public infrastructure. “The goal of this is to create an administrative process internally that allows us to get us to a point of action faster. We think people are going to act quicker once they feel they’ve gone through a process that hears a complaint (and) adjudicates that complaint, but the other purpose of this… is to give the judicial branch satisfaction that the due process elements, all those boxes have been checked and they can proceed right to action.”
The bill, alongside companion legislation, gives the existing Nuisance Abatement Board (NAB) additional powers and creates an administrative hearing officer position to conduct administrative hearings on code violations. When a county inspector issues a citation, the property owner has 30 days to respond to the citation by paying the fine and correcting the issue or requesting a hearing to contest it. If the cited person does not respond within 30 days, the case moves to court, where a judge can issue an enforceable order to correct the deficit and/or pay the fines. The new process would allow the administrative board to conduct a hearing on the citation and “order against the person or property cited and impose a civil penalty,” the bill reads. Building and zoning code violations would still proceed through the court system as they do now, but housing and property citations would be handled through administrative hearings.
County officials said the court is severely backlogged in dealing with code violation citations, with cases being heard now on citations that were issued last year. The new process would reduce the delay, the executive and legislative branches believe.
“This is long overdue, and hopefully this will cut down on the long, long wait it takes to correct any code violation,” said Councilman Obie Patterson of District 8. “This is a big thing in my district. I can name two or three (instances) it must have taken more than a year – two years, sometimes three years trying to correct a simple situation that I’m of the opinion could have been resolved through an administrative process like this.”
The bill also spells out procedures for handling the evidence in cases, the duties of the board members and chair and the process for appealing the administrative hearing officer’s decision. That appeals process is new to this version of the bill, which had been held by the committee twice before last Wednesday’s vote to move it forward.
Eric Wardford, an administrative hearing process administrator who conducted these kinds of hearings in Washington, D.C. and Detroit and is consulting on the legislation for the county, said the reconsideration process is intended “to give the respondent a second bite at the apple.”
“It is a process where they can submit it to paper review, and so it’s not a secondary hearing,” he said. “They are required to submit new and additional evidence. Under those circumstances, they can’t just reassert the same issue. That’s a problem most appellate court processes have.”
The person cited could then appeal to the court if the reconsideration upholds the citation.
The bill also specifies that while it shall become law on Jan. 1, 2018, the board will not begin hearing cases until July 1, 2018. The gap was the source of some concern for committee Chair Todd Turner.
“Tell me what happens in the interim, in the six months, if something happens that rises to that level,” he said. “I have a little bit of hesitancy on that because we’re going to have the law effective and so people are going to think it’s in operation.”
Frome said the timing is to allow the county time to get citation books, office space, data management systems and other necessary resources set up, as well as speak with communities about the change.
“What this allows us to do is just to stand this up, have a rolling start. We’re probably also going to look at internally starting this up in specific areas of the county just to make sure we’ve got a handle on it,” he said. “And then also allow us for some time to discuss with the community how this process is going to work.”
Turner said he still hoped to flesh out some of the timing issues, but supported passing the bill out of committee.
With the committee’s favorable report, the bill now heads to the full council for consideration.