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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Thursday, March 5, 2015 by Jo Clifton
Zimmerman: Fine Code Compliance for losing case
City Council Member Don Zimmerman has proposed a unique punishment for the city’s Code Compliance Department when it loses a case in Municipal Court: It will have to pay.
Zimmerman, who has made no secret of his disdain for the department’s involvement in minor matters, has distributed a resolution that calls on the city manager to reimburse attorney’s fees to any citizen who is found not guilty of a code compliance issue at Municipal Court. The resolution says the fees would be “deducted from the budget of the Code Compliance Department.”
Zimmerman said the intent of his resolution is to get the department to focus on important matters and stop enforcing minor regulations such as those related to the height or composition of fences.
Zimmerman is particularly angry about the case of Matthew Palmer, a District 4 resident who went through a long and convoluted argument with Code Compliance about a fence surrounding his RV. Palmer, whose fence was sometimes alleged to be illegal — and sometimes not — won a jury trial at Municipal Court last month.
Attorney Brian Buster with Christopher Bean & Associates represented Palmer. He said Palmer was aware that he would likely not be reimbursed for attorney fees if he won the case. Buster told the Austin Monitor that Palmer had paid the fees, but declined to say how much they were.
Buster acknowledged that criminal defendants pay their own fees and do not receive any reimbursement. Regarding trying to collect the fees, Buster said, “I really didn’t know how to proceed,” since there are no court procedures for such an action.
Buster said that as long as Palmer does not change the fence, he believes the city will not attempt to prosecute him further considering that the court decided the case in Palmer’s favor.
Palmer has a Facebook page called “That G*****n Fence.” That page indicates that Palmer may be making some changes to the fence. He reports that a company has offered to wrap the fence with a picture that would be identical to his RV. Palmer writes, “This is going to be EPIC if it happens.”
District 4 Council Member Greg Casar said the Monitor learned about Zimmerman’s resolution before he did. Casar said he spoke with Zimmerman about the issue and was interested in having an executive session about the case.
Casar said he was not a sponsor of the resolution, but was in favor of influencing the department to focus on important matters. “My interest in code enforcement is I would like to make sure we direct our resources so landlords will keep up their complexes, so people live in safe and sanitary housing, (instead of on) the smaller cases. Also, it’s interesting what happens when a particular employee’s interpretation is incorrect.”
Casar added, “I know Palmer is frustrated, but I of course want to hear the city’s side before deciding any next step. Right now, I wouldn’t be supportive of this resolution. I’m more interested in structurally making sure the Code Compliance Department is working the way that District 4 residents want it to.
“I just want to understand … what ways we can make code compliance more effective.”
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