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Lathrop City Council considers change to appeals process
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LATHROP – Most of the Lathrop City Council doesn’t believe that those who levy the fines should be the same ones who determine whether they’re justified if they’re appealed.
But the matter wasn’t quite as cut and dry on Monday night when the council discussed whether to implement a new system for hearing appeals from those who don’t agree with the city’s infractions for code enforcement violations and similar assessments.
In the eyes of Paul Akinjo, the lone councilman who voted against the presentation, the council should have the opportunity to weigh in on matters before they’re sent to Superior Court as the next step in the appeals process – arguably giving those on the dais the opportunity to determine the validity of the very ordinances and associated fines that they voted into place.
According to city staff, Lathrop pushed to revise the approach for several reasons including establishing a firm process on how administrative hearing officers are chosen and to set the minimum qualifications for those hearing officers as well as providing greater transparency in the matter and fully complying with the case law for compensating those who assist with the hearings.
City Attorney Salvador Navarette said that the city’s current position is to provide an independent hearing officer as an alternative to taking matter through the court system – allowing people who want to appeal that citation to do so with the officer to determine whether it was correctly issued and in the spirit of the laws that have been enacted. California law, he says, requires that a hearing and an independent officer be provided to those who want to challenge the city’s findings.
While the city has the plan in place to provide a hearing officer, Navarette said that there isn’t a concrete plan in place that governs how to select a hearing officer – making the push to find somebody that is both qualified but does not have a conflict of interest at the same time.
And they’re making sure that things are as transparent as possible.
While finding independent arbiters might not be that difficult, Lathrop proposed a plan that would both set the standard for who can be chosen as a hearing officer and create a system in which those who perform the task for the city aren’t monetarily compensated for their time – eliminating the argument that the person who is being paid by the city will have a financial incentive to rule in favor of the city to keep them in the good graces of administrators.
So a collective is what was proposed – appealing to other cities with code enforcement programs and experts and agreeing to provide the expertise in an arrangement if they were ever called up in a similar circumstance. According to Navarette, the terms of the agreement could extend beyond the standard code enforcement hearing in order to make all parties whole.
But Akinjo wanted to know if the city attorney was attempting to “circumvent” the council by not including them in the process. Those who wish to appeal the finding of the hearing officer would then appeal to the San Joaquin Superior Court – something that Lathrop’s code enforcement supervisor said that he’s seen only happen once out of more than 200 cases that he has seen in his career.
“I always believe citizens should have access to their elected members,” Akinjo said. “They’re elected, and people should be able to come to the council and deliver whatever they want to say – whether they want to appeal or they don’t want to appeal.
“That’s just my opinion – we don’t want to cut the citizen away from their elected official.”
According to Navarette, the city’s proposal removes most of the opportunity for nepotism and impropriety to create a fairer and fully transparent way to enforcing the code that has been enacted by the council.
As approved, Lathrop’s own code enforcement supervisor and city attorney would not hear any Lathrop cases, but would be made available to another city to hear one of their cases if they provide those services to the city.
Lathrop currently has three cases that are pending appeal.
“I think we should leave it in the hands of professionals,” Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal said. “A city attorney, a code enforcement officer, a code enforcement supervisor – they know the law, and we don’t know the law.
“Sometimes it’s better not to have too many cooks in the kitchen because we can take it and mess it up and the city will pay a heavy price.”