In the community, Local government

Ontario agrees to pay, settles lawsuit over code enforcement as reforms in the works

ONTARIO – On a hot July day in 2020, Susan Ragsdale bent down on her hands and knees to pull weeds from the two garden spots in front of her home. 

She wasn’t idling away the time. 

She was attempting to comply with the city of Ontario’s nuisance law. Ragsdale had been warned she faced a fine if she didn’t tidy up the weeds in her front yard’s garden spots. But Ragsdale couldn’t weed fast enough to satisfy the city, which hit her with a $700 fine.

Now, she’s getting her money back.

She and other Ontario property owners until last year were caught in the city of Ontario’s aggressive code enforcement process. Using warnings, fines and even liens, the city punished those who would not meet city standards for weeds, abandoned vehicles and debris.

Over time, unpaid fines piled on top of unpaid fines, totaling more than $1 million. The city took aggressive steps in some instances, putting liens on property to be sure the city got its money if the property ever sold.

But the city has now scrapped its code enforcement process, dismissed the unpaid fines, and removed liens as a result of a lengthy review and city council resolution. A city committee is expected to soon recommend a new way to keep the city livable without unnecessarily punishing property owners like Ragsdale.

And to make amends, the city has agreed to pay $55,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by Ragsdale and Heriberta Contreras Granados contesting the city’s system.

“We just live simply a lot of us that are in low incomes, or older, or disabled, or whatever our circumstances are. We just want to enjoy the peace and quiet and if we need help, we help each other,” said Ragsdale.

Ragsdale’s account mirrors others who encountered frustrations and confusion when trying to deal with City Hall over code enforcement matters.

When she received the first notice in 2020, Ragsdale said, she reached out to the city but never heard back. 

A school bus driver who has lived in Ontario for 45 years, Ragsdale decided to work on the weeds herself, despite her age and two knee surgeries that made bending down difficult. 

The notices that Ragsdale received did not make it clear which weeds she needed to or how to dispose of them. 

“I would like to be treated like they would treat their neighbors.”

– Susan Ragsdale

After calling the city recorder’s office again several times, Ragsdale assumed she’d successfully complied with the city’s request. 

But a second notice arrived, demanding a $700 fine only two days after the original deadline to comply. Ragsdale was confused about the fine because she’d seen two code enforcement officers drive by her home without stopping, according to court filings in U.S. District Court. She assumed because they didn’t stop to say anything she’d successfully removed the weeds considered a nuisance. 

Ragsdale waited and waited for the city to respond to her questions about the code enforcement fines for the weeds on her property. There was no response until a few days after Christmas, when Ragsdale received a third notice, dated in November, that stated she had to pay the $700 fine or face a lien on her property. 

Afraid that she might lose the place she called home, Ragsdale paid.

“I would like to be treated like they would treat their neighbors,” said Ragsdale. 

This year, Ragsdale joined Heriberta Contreras Granados’ suit against the city over unfair notice and imposition of fines and liens. The lawsuit, brought by attorneys at the Oregon Law Center, contended that the city violated their client’s constitutional rights.

“This case really is a good example of a failure of due process,” said Emily Teplin Fox, Ragsdale’s attorney from Oregon Law Center. “They shouldn’t be punishing people for being poor or not speaking English.” 

Fines pile up

For Granados, the case was further complicated because English is not her first language, and she was not living at the property where the civil penalties were assessed. In February 2020, the city fined Contreras Granados $3,950 for “debris, weeds, grass, freezers, and storage of vehicles and parts,” according to court filings in U.S. District Court.

The city then assessed a second series of fines totaling $7,800 before Contreras Granados had ever seen a notice. Once she heard about the notices, she and her family attempted to address the nuisance violations but ultimately had a $9,950 lien placed on her home. According to the court complaint, this lien decreased the value of her home – her only significant asset. 

Contreras Granados and Ragsdale settled the lawsuit before trial. Contreras Granados was awarded $39,300 in damages and Ragsdale was awarded $700 in damages for the paid fine. All property liens were removed and the city has not pursued a policy of enforcing nuisance violations. 

Their case followed the well-publicized lawsuit filed by Ontario Mayor Riley Hill after a $500 fine was levied on one of his properties for a city nuisance violation. Hill won his case.

In April, the Ontario City Council voted unanimously to waive all property liens and outstanding fines under the nuisance regulations. This accounted for close to $1 million in fines and liens. 

The resolution comes as the city considers changes to its problematic nuisance regulations. The problems extend from excessive fines on lower-income residents to inconsistent procedures for enforcing municipal code violations.

On Thursday, Aug. 11, the city’s Code Enforcement Review Ad Hoc Committee will review the new ordinances, according to Interim City Manager Dan Cummings. These recommendations and replacements will then be presented to city council. 

“We’re gonna start fresh,” said Cummings. “It allowed pretty big fines to accumulate without proper notice.” 

A new approach

Cummings said the city may instead fine residents for just the cost of nuisance repairs if the city has to step in and hire contractors, which would be significantly less than current city fines. 

“It would be nice if our community set up groups to help others, if we had a group of citizens, to volunteer and help each other out,” said Cummings. 

Bill Maurer, a managing attorney at the Institute of Justice in Washington, recommended local governments budget support funds and limit fines to only the cost of nuisance abatement. 

“This causes a lot of unnecessary friction between the people and the government,” said Maurer. 

While the city’s resolution may have waived all outstanding liens and fines from code enforcement, the Oregon statute of limitations for federal constitutional claims has passed. Any residents who may want restitution for fees, fines, or liens they paid in past wouldn’t find relief in court.

Teplin Fox sees the Ontario resolution as a progressive step toward helping the city’s residents. 

“We’re really pleased about the city’s efforts and decision to waive the debt,” said Teplin Fox. “Cities can change and should be lauded for changing.” 

Ragsdale was pleased with the outcome of the lawsuit, the city’s decision to waive the outstanding fees and work toward replacing the municipal code. 

“It made me feel like there’s hope for a better city to live in, you know, and it’s helping us instead of hurting us,” said Ragsdale. 

News tip? Contact reporter Mac Larsen at [email protected]

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