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Countdown to Summerset hearing headlines unusually busy July

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Fresno City Hall usually is pretty quiet during July. But July 2016 figures to be different, thanks to the city’s administrative hearing officers.

This month’s calendar of appeals is available at the City Clerk’s Office for review. Three appeals stand out.

Independent Administrative Hearing Officer Michael Flores next week will conduct two hearings involving code enforcement appeals. One involves citations at 5391 E. Jensen Ave. in South Fresno. The other involves citations at 1658 N. West Ave. in West-Central Fresno.

Actually, both hearings are properly called “progress” hearings. They will be the first of their kind in the city’s history.

The Jensen Avenue progress hearing is at 11 a.m. Tuesday, July 12. The West Avenue progress hearing is at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, July 14. Both will be at City Hall.

Then, on July 25, comes the long-awaited appeal hearing for Chris Henry, owner of Summerset Village Apartments in Central Fresno. Summerset Village, of course, is the complex that had its natural gas connection turned off in November. The result was hundreds of tenants going days without natural gas-generated heat and hot water.

When the dust settled, city officials hit Henry with 1,450 code violations throughout the huge complex and $290,000 in fines.

Most code enforcement appeals are heard in a modest-sized room near the Council Chamber. The Summerset crisis generated national attention. Flores, who will conduct the Henry appeal, has decided to hold this one in the Council Chamber to accommodate the expected crowd.

The Henry appeal also is historic due to politics and the size of the fines.

Let’s circle back to next week’s two progress hearings.

As you may recall, code enforcement appeal hearings used to be a one-time deal. City officials and the appellant met in a room and gave their version of events. The hearing officer made his decision.

Let’s say the decision went against the appellant. The hearing officer would tell the appellant: Pay the fine and fix the problems on your property. That was that as far as the hearing officer’s responsibility went. It was up to code enforcement inspectors (or the City Attorney’s Office) to make sure the appellant did as told.

That proved easier said than done. So, the City Council in April passed a law that gives the hearing officer both more power and more responsibility.

For example, let’s say property owner John Doe loses his appeal. His fine is $1,000. He is ordered to fix his property. Under the new law, the hearing officer at the same time he makes his decision also sets a date for a progress hearing 30 days later. This progress hearing is just what it says – an update on Doe’s efforts to do as ordered.

If Doe at the progress hearing is found to be moving forward at an acceptable pace, then no problem. If not, the hearing officer can double the fine and even recommend that the city take Doe to Superior Court. Doe could be looking at jail time.

Ed Johnson is the city’s other independent administrative hearing officer. He refused in a recent decision to comply with the new law and set a date for the progress hearing. Johnson said the law forces the same hearing officer to be both an impartial judge (the first hearing) and an advocate doing the city’s business (the progress hearing). This dual mandate on the same hearing officer is illegal, Johnson has written.

Flores clearly sees the new law in a different light.

Will the appellants next week argue that, in light of Johnson’s recent decision, a progress hearing conducted by the same hearing officer who conducted the initial hearing is illegal? If the appellants do make this argument, and Flores dismisses it, will the appellants take the issue to Superior Court?

Time will tell.

One other point. Flores told me last week that there’s nothing in the new law that defines in detail exactly what constitutes “progress.”

That strikes me as another potential problem with the new law. Maybe Johnson should reconsider his earlier opinion and get back in the game. His decisions at progress hearings, combined with Flores’s decisions, could create a fair definition of “progress.”

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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