FORT MADISON - A debate over the value of adding additional penalties for ongoing civil infractions in Fort Madison ended up moving the issue forward.
At Tuesday's regular meeting of the Fort Madison City Council, attorney Pat O'Connell of Lynch-Dallas, the city's attorney, was present to address the issue.
New language replaces section 1-4-2 of the city's code for general penalty with language that adds the $750 per day fine for "ongoing conditions" that are deemed civil infractions.
According to the city code, a Municipal Infraction is a civil offense punishable by a civil penalty of not more than $500 for each violation or if the infraction is a repeat offense, a civil penalty not to exceed $750 may be imposed for each repeat offense.
The new language adds "or in the case (of) an ongoing condition, $750 per day the condition continues."
City Councilwoman Rebecca Bowker opposed the language being added to the code, but the motion passed 6-1 on the first reading.
The motion will require two additional readings or a final reading if the third reading is waived at upcoming council meetings.
"Why is it necessary and why are we doing it?" Bowker asked.
O'Connell said many cities have added the language to put pressure on owners who are ignoring city communication.
"What I normally recommend is when we've written more than one letter, and we said clean this up, clean this up twice, and they haven't, I say, 'alright when we go to court we go back to the second letter when we warned them and we're going to ask the judge for penalty from that day forward'," O'Connell said.
"Those penalties rack up, you don't get that from the court typically, but it's nice to have a suspended penalty over somebody's head."
A suspended penalty would be a fine imposed by a judge, but part of it could be suspended pending correction of the violation.
O'Connell said a $750 penalty could be a drop in the bucket for someone that owns 20 properties, but if they get a suspended fine from a judge it gives the city an enforcement tool in the code.
"It's not going to be used all the time, but it can be used on larger blighted properties that people are constantly complaining about," he said.
Bowker said the language seems a bit arbitrary.
O'Connell said the new code broadens the judge's discretion.
"All penalties are abitrary because the judge has discretion," he said. "I wouldn't worry about the abitrariness, that's what we have the court for. That's what judges do all day long. They figure out what is fair. It's not really arbitrary because they have a right to come to court."
O'Connell said most other cities he works with has this language added and said because it didn't exist in Fort Madison's code, he thought it should be there.
"It's a good tool in bad cases. Otherwise the judge is limited to $750."
He said the intention isn't to make $60,000 on a violation, it's to motivate "bad actors" to clean up property. He said the city wouldn't have that much into enforcing the violation and the city would typically be looking at recouping those fees so the taxpayers are treated fairly.
Mayor Matt Mohrfeld said a city staff discussion centered around what other communities are doing to help address repeated violations of city code with regard to properties.
City Councilman Tom Schulz said the city needs the ability to enforce the code.
"I think it comes under the heading speak softly but carry a big stick," Schulz said. "Have the ability to use this as a tool to get the situation rectified and not have to go to court or fight over it."
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