DeKalb has a new code compliance ordinance, but residents who have complained for years about the cleanliness of the county say the law needs more teeth.
The ordinance, passed by the Board of Commissioners on Sept. 27, creates separate fines based on the form of notice given to alleged violators. If a property owner is notified personally of the court hearing for code violations, the Recorder’s Court could levy a maximum $1,000 fine or 120 days in jail, or both.
A maximum $500 fine could be imposed if a citation is served by mail, posted on the property’s premises or published on the Recorder’s Court website.
“This is a welcome improvement over what we had,” said Recorder’s Court Judge Nellie Withers. “Our frustration has always been that, unfortunately, people are really good about dodging the officer, not opening the door, refusing to take the citation, being an absentee landlord.”
From April 2009 to April 2010, Recorder’s Court judges dismissed approximately 50 percent of code violation cases because there was no personal service.
“This rectifies that problem,” said Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who chairs the committee that studied the ordinance. “Now, if the person is not there [or] if they refuse to open the door, and personal service is not given, there are provisions here for other forms of service. This opens the door for continued adjudication.”
Once notice is given, alleged violators are then obliged to attend a hearing on the case.
“If they don’t come, on proof of notice, the hearing goes on in their absence,” Withers said.
Beginning January 2013, Recorder’s Court fines will prevent applicants from renewing business licenses or permits for land use change.
In addition to possible fines, property owners with continuing violations can face probation with “a very real potential for jail time,” Withers said.
“You will keep your grass cut,” Withers said. “You will get your house fixed. You will move those cars off. You will stop doing the repairs in your front yard.”
But residents attending the commissioners’ meeting where the ordinance was passed said the law does not go far enough.
Community leader Joe Arrington said of the ordinance “at best it’s a very weak diversion from facing major reform from cleaning up the county.”
“We still have the same major problems we had 10 years ago,” Arrington said. “Let’s turn it into Keep DeKalb Nasty instead of Keep DeKalb Beautiful.”
Arrington was part of a code compliance task force that met for a year to recommend changes to the code enforcement ordinance. Some members said their suggested ordinance was weakened.
“We worked for months on this code compliance to clean up this county,” said task force member Charles Peegler. “We worked very hard. You watered it down. It does not even look like the original proposal we sent to you.”
The task force recommended that a code compliance board, made up of residents, be given the authority to review cases and hand out fines of up to $1,000 per day per fine. The Board of Commissioners’ county operations and public safety committee nixed that idea.
“There’s no teeth in it,” said Joscelyn O’Neill, neighborhood watch coordinator for Greater Towers Community Association, about the ordinance.
“Code compliance is what the people need in DeKalb,” O’Neill said. “We pay for it. We look forward to it. At one time we called it DeKalb Beautiful. It is not DeKalb Beautiful anymore. We have too much trash, too much weeds and we have too many violators.”
Commissioner Jeff Rader said the new code compliance ordinance “is a necessary but not necessarily sufficient effort to address the larger body of recommendations that the task force made.”
“When places look well cared for, you don’t see any petty violations then people don’t feel entitled to undertake more extensive crimes—property crimes and violent crimes in well-maintained neighborhoods,” Rader said. “This makes code compliance really a foundation of a more extensive law enforcement strategy.”
Commissioner Kathie Gannon told residents to continue to work for code compliance improvements.
“There is still a lot left to do in code compliance,” Gannon said. “We have a lot of teeth yet to put in our various codes.”