Ontario mayor wins suit against his own city over nuisance citations

Ontario Mayor Riley Hill. (The Enterprise/ANGELINA KATSANIS)

ONTARIO – Ontario Mayor Riley Hill has won his case against the city of Ontario and will not have to pay the $500 fine levied on his company for violating city nuisance laws.

Eldorado Investments Inc. was fined for the unkempt state of a property on Southeast 11th Avenue.

The mayor’s legal action against the city resulted in close scrutiny of the system the city used to keep derelict cars, garbage and weeds under control. The city suspended its penalties for violations and a new committee is examining how to reform the system.

The drama surrounding the fine has dragged on for more than a year and cost the city more than $8,000 in legal fees, according to City Manager Adam Brown.   

“I am happy the court vacated the fine against my company, but I think it is unfortunate that the city staff chose to waste so much time and money on this,” said Hill in a statement through his lawyer, Zach Olson of Yturri Rose. “It was obvious from the beginning that the code enforcement officers bungled their own notice rules while targeting me for asking too many questions about their operations.”

The debacle began in late 2019, when Hill complained to Ontario police that a squatter was living on his property. He solicited help cleaning up from Police Chief Cal Kunz and code enforcement Officer Dallas Brockett. 

Instead, Brockett found that conditions on the property violated several sections of Ontario’s municipal code. The site had debris, odors, tall grass, an inoperable vehicle and outside storage of personal property, according to Brockett’s later report.

City records showed that enforcement officials warned Hill by mail in January 2020 but conditions persisted without change in the coming months, resulting in a civil penalty of $600 issued that August.

That fall, Hill decided to appeal the fine, paying a $250 fee to the city in order to do so. 

Olson and Hill argued that the fine against Eldorado was politically motivated, and that it had been prompted by a newspaper article in the Argus Observer. They said that the mess had not been caused by Hill, rather by the squatters on the property, who he had been unable to remove until earlier that summer. And they said that Hill had made a good-faith effort to clean up the property.

Hill lost the appeal, although a hearings officer reduced the fine to $500. That’s when Hill took his own city to court, contesting the matter.

In a ruling on Aug. 30, Malheur Circuit Court Judge Lung Hung found that the city had violated its own procedures, vacating the fine.

Hung found errors by the city, including Brockett’s failure to post the abatement notice on Hill’s property, and his failure to include certain details in the notice. Hung said that Brockett had erred in imposing a fine on Hill for weeds when there was no mention of weeds in the initial abatement notice. 

In his lawsuit, Hill requested that the city reimburse his attorney’s fees, but Hung said that he couldn’t rule on that request.

Olson said that it was “to be determined” whether Hill’s appeal fee paid to the city would be reimbursed.

Brown said that since the city is already reconsidering elements of the code enforcement system, Hill’s case would serve as information they could use moving forward. 

“It seemed like it was the quasi-judicial process that they cited the errors in,” Brown said. 

Brown said that early feedback city councilors was encouraging the city to adjudicate civil fines through the Malheur County Justice Court or with an attorney performing as the hearings officer.

“If you’re running a quasi-judicial process, it makes sense to have somebody that’s already familiar with the legal frameworks you have to operate in,” Brown said. 

Brown has proposed an amnesty to clear nearly $1 million in unpaid code enforcement fines, but the city council has yet to act. 

The city has appointed an ad-hoc committee on code enforcement to review the city’s practices. It consists of Councilors John Kirby and Michael Braden and Ontario residents Richard Watts, Ann Schiemer, Penny Bakefelt, David Sullivan and Gabriele Astle. 

Olson, whose handling of Hill’s case over the past year inspired him to also organize various other people fined by the city’s code enforcement system to speak to city council about its injustices, said that he plans to continue being involved with the issue.

“There’s two problems: all these outstanding fines, which as I’ve said publicly, I think were imposed improperly and need to be addressed,” Olson said. “I think they should be eliminated or at the very least a neutral third party could come in and look at them. There’s also the issue of, going forward, how to address these issues in a fair and legal way, address whatever aesthetic issue in a way that’s not oppressive to people.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577. 

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