A proposed charter change that would impose administrative citations on people who violate city property codes and other ordinances drew more than two dozen people to a hearing before the Saint Paul Charter Commission on August 2. A second hearing is planned on September 13.

Administrative citations are praised as a way to have violators pay fines instead of face criminal charges. But concerns have been raised over whether the process would have unintended consequences, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

The Charter Commission is expected to present its recommendation to the City Council by October 29. Council and commission members, along with Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) staff, have discussed the use of administrative citations for the past few years. The fines and process to impose them require a charter amendment. They would also require amending city ordinances to allow their implementation.

DSI director Ricardo Cervantes described administrative citations and fines as “developing a fair and effective tool to gain compliance with city ordinances.” Penalizing ordinance violators through the courts can take a long time, he noted, and criminal penalties can affect a person’s search for housing or employment.

   

Cervantes said the fines could be used to enforce property codes, business licenses and site plan violations, and issues such as the city’s minimum wage and earned sick and safe time requirements for employers. One big issue where the citations could be used is animal complaints. The city issues about 150 criminal complaints each year related to animals running loose.

“The intent is to not make money,” said assistant city attorney Rachel Tierney. “The intent is to gain compliance.”

The city would likely cap fines at $2,000, twice the amount of a misdemeanor violation of city regulations. Fines tied to administrative citations would not be used as a revenue collection measure for the city.

 

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“The intent is to not make money,” said assistant city attorney Rachel Tierney. “The intent is to gain compliance.”

Violations could wind up either before a city staff member acting as a legislative hearing officer or before an administrative law judge supplied by the state. Appeals would be made to the City Council or the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

If the City Council unanimously supports administrative citations, the measure will become part of the charter and the process of passing procedural ordinances will start. If council members cannot agree on the measure, it could be shelved or placed on an election ballot.

Adding administrative citations would mean hiring four more city staff members to handle the hearing process at a cost of about $450,000 per year.

Skeptical response

The idea of such citations met a skeptical response from several commissioners and members of the public on August 2. Jens Werner, executive director of the Summit-University Planning Council, said the SUPC has spent the past two years working with neighbors who find themselves in the city’s legislative hearing process for property code violations.

Property code complaints are almost always made anonymously, often by a neighbor, Werner said. Cultural differences and a lack of resources to keep up a property sometimes play roles. Property owners who cannot do the work themselves may end up paying the city to cut tall grass and weeds or shovel snow, and the charges are added to their property taxes. Some people have lost their homes when landlords did not make required improvements.

Werner said the legislative hearing process should not be used if the city implements administrative citations. “That (hearing system) is super, super flawed and it’s hurting people,” Werner said. “Let’s not replicate a system that’s damaging and traumatic and inequitable.”

Jack Cann, an attorney with the Housing Justice Center, said that while the effort to decriminalize fines is appreciated, such charges can have a disproportionate, negative impact on low-income and minority households.

Labor leaders and members of the advocacy group ISAIAH spoke for the administrative citations. They pointed to the need to enforce Saint Paul’s recently enacted minimum wage and earned sick and safe time ordinances.

Better enforcement

Cara Peterson, president of the Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation, said the administrative citations would provide a faster means of enforcement against employers who flaunt the rules. She and others said that not all employers have informed their workers of the minimum wage and earned sick and safe time protections.

Commissioner Debbie Montgomery was among those questioning the administrative citation process. She also wondered if it would have a disproportionate impact on low-income people.

Other commissioners agreed with her concerns about unintended consequences. “Usually the people who end up being punished are the people in rental housing,” said commissioner Gary Unger. He said landlords who are fined for property code violations could easily pass those fines on to tenants in the form of higher rent.

— Jane McClure

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