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All eyes on Summerset appeal starting Monday

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The Summerset Village appeal hearing begins at 9 a.m. Monday at Fresno City Hall.

“Nine months in the making,” City Hall wags are saying. “It’s time to give birth to this thing.”

Summerset Village is the central Fresno apartment complex that lost its natural-gas service in November 2015. Hundreds of tenants went days without swift and sure access to heat and hot water.

Things quickly settled into political warfare. Summerset Village and owner Chris Henry became watchwords for the “slumlord” mentality deemed to be responsible for many of Fresno’s social and economic troubles.

Inspectors hit Henry with 1,450 code-enforcement violations. At $200 a pop, Henry was looking at $290,000 in fines. He appealed.

Independent Administrative Hearing Officer Michael Flores will handle the fight. Monday’s brawl will be held in the Council Chamber. There could be a round two on Tuesday, and even a round three on Wednesday.

Don’t be surprised if the proceedings soon move to a smaller conference room on the second floor. Few think big crowds will stick around for the entire hearing.

Flores and lawyers for both sides met early last week to go over last-minute details.

Flores on Thursday told me that both sides on Monday will deliver brief opening statements.

Flores said he expects the Henry camp to present a simple argument: Top city officials in November–December promised there would be no fines if Henry got busy fixing all of the alleged problems. Henry has done that. Therefore, the fines are not valid.

Detailed arguments on this line of thought wouldn’t be heard until everyone (public, city, Henry) give their testimony on the alleged code violations.

In other words, the Summerset hearing might travel down parallel paths. On one hand, Henry will contend that City Hall promises in exchange for his prompt response renders the rest of the hearing irrelevant. On the other hand, both sides will duke it out over the citations.

Flores said it’s his understanding that City Hall and the Henry camp during earlier talks agreed to divide the 1,450 citations into three stacks. One stack contains the most serious violations, code infractions that posed an immediate and serious threat to tenants’ safety and justified City Hall’s prompt action. Another stack contains violations of a more mundane matter that didn’t justify City Hall’s coercive response. The third stack contains violations in the middle – serious or mundane?

Flores said he expects much of this week’s hearing to revolve around the third stack.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin for several years has pushed hard to beef up the Code Enforcement Division. Community activists were pushing hard in the same direction long before that.

Rental housing is the issue. How is City Hall to use its policing power to ensure quality shelter for renters, particularly the poor, while retaining a dynamic private-sector housing market?

Flores and Ed Johnson, the city’s other independent administrative hearing officer, have been handling landlord appeals for months. Some of the fines have been well over $10,000. Flores and Johnson in October are slated to review 25 additional cases involving stiff (and possibly excessive) fines. The fines in several of the October cases are in the $100,000 range.

At the same time, Phase Two of the Mayor-City Council Code Enforcement Task Force is nearing the end of its work.

The Task Force finished its Phase One work in 2015. Two reports (the first from the entire group, the second a minority response) with recommendations were submitted to the City Council. The Task Force’s membership included city officials (Swearengin, City Manager Bruce Rudd, three council members); real estate representatives (developer Brooke Ashjian, Steve Hrdlicka from the Fresno Apartment Association); academics (Fresno State sociology professors Matt Jendian and Janine Nkosi); and religious leaders (Rev. David Criner Jr., Rev. Booker Lewis).

An unmistakable tension developed on the Task Force. Some members want targeted government response. Some want widespread government regulation.

It’s a safe bet that everyone on the Task Force will be interested in Flores’ decision on the Summerset appeal.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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