How Does the Code Process Work?
Over the years, Lake Worth residents have had many questions regarding the code compliance program. Mark Woods, Code Compliance Manager for the City, laid out each step of the code process so that residents may better understand the process and what takes place when a violation is reported or violation notice is issued. The process is governed by state law (Fl. Statute 162). Although there may be minor differences from city to city, most of the steps in the code violation process are the same statewide.
Step one: A violation is reported
There are two ways that a property or code issue can come to the attention of the City. A resident may report a code violation to the city, or a violation might be observed by a city code officer directly. Once a resident reports a violation, a city code officer will visit the property to investigate the report. Following the site visit, a determination will be made whether a violation(s) exists or not.
The most common violations that are reported are overgrown grass, roof maintenance, and general property maintenance, including trash and debris on a property.
Step two: A courtesy notice
The city leaves a courtesy notice at the property that is in violation. The courtesy notice explains the violation and gives the resident a date by which it should be corrected. The date is based on the type of violation. The more severe the violation, the longer the time frame because the city understands that it will take longer to correct.
Step three: The code officer returns to the property
When the correction time frame is up (that was written on the courtesy notice), the code officer returns to the property. If the resident has corrected the problem, the case is closed.
If the problem has not been corrected, then the next steps depend on the actions that the resident has taken. A resident might be granted more time provided that they have requested additional time from the City. In many cases, the City may still be making an effort to reach the owner of the property if they do not reside on the property itself. If the City is trying to reach the property owner, a notice is sent by certified mail to the owner’s last known address as listed by the Property Appraiser.
Step four: Certified notice
When a resident receives a certified notice of violation, time again is provided to correct the violation. Just like in step two, this amount of time is based on how serious the violation is, with more egregious properties being given more time. Usually the range of time is between 30 and 60 days.
The notice also sets a date for a hearing. Hearings are scheduled the last Thursday morning of every month in the City Commission chambers at City Hall. When a resident has a hearing, the case is presented in front of a Special Magistrate. At this time, a code officer from the City has to prove that they have followed all State and local laws. Otherwise the case can be dismissed (thrown out). Code officers also have to prove that they used the correct section of State or local law when reporting the violation.
The public is allowed to attend these hearings, but they will only be invited to speak if they have material evidence about the case.
At the hearing, the magistrate will decide whether or not the City has reported the violation correctly. If it has, then the magistrate will assign additional time for the resident to fix the problem. The magistrate will also assign a date by which the resident must fix the problem, or a fine will be assessed and accrue each day until it is fixed.
There are no fines assigned at the hearing, but the resident will have to pay administrative costs. The fees area similar to clerk fees at a civil court.
Other frequently asked questions:
If I report a violation, will the city update me about the process?
It depends on how it is reported. If an update is requested, the code staff will provide an update. If it’s a general call or reported on the website, then an update may not be possible, especially if the complaint is reported anonymously.
Why can’t the City make someone fix a violation faster?
There are two primary reasons. The violation process is based on State law, so all four of the outlined steps must be followed.
Code violations are a civil process, not a criminal one. The City can only fine a property owner. The City can’t force a person to pick up a rake or a trash bag and clean up.
Doesn’t the hearing always side with the City?
Not at all. According to Woods, there is no silver bullet. Many times, depending on the evidence presented, the specific law used in the violation, and the property owner’s actions, the hearing ends in the property owner’s favor.
“We’re in this together,” said Woods. "Residents (property owners) and code compliance officials must work together to improve the City of Lake Worth by following the state process, one property at a time."