Ruth Uranga stands outside her northwest Ontario property, which has accumulated $74,250 in fines since November 2019. (ANGELINA KATSANIS/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO - Day by day for months, city fines mounted on Ruth Uranga’s northwest Ontario property.

Ontario officials wanted her family home cleaned up, hoping the penalties would force her to act.

But the city wants $74,250 in civil penalties – thousands more than the property is worth.

“I have no money to pay for (a) lawyer or to fight,” Uranga told the Enterprise in an interview.

Such jaw-dropping penalties have come into public focus in Ontario as city officials wrestle with reforms to a system that has accumulated nearly $1 million in unpaid fines in the past four years.

The fines are imposed on homeowners and businesses that don’t obey city directives to cut tall weeds, clear out junked vehicles, or otherwise rid property of garbage and debris.

The idea is to help beautify Ontario.

But an investigation by the Enterprise established the city doesn’t follow its own procedures in trying to enforce that eye appeal.

Interviews with city officials and property owners and a review of hundreds of pages of city records obtained through public records requests showed:

• The city retroactively piles on daily fines that quickly accumulate in a way that ordinary homeowners can’t pay.

• Eleven of the largest 15 unpaid penalties have been imposed not on businesses but on homeowners - and often ones with limited means to pay.

• City code enforcement officers appear to skip inspections for months, in violation of the city’s own procedures that require far more frequent contact with property owners.

• The process to challenge fines isn’t always clear to property owners.

• City officials don’t expect to ever collect most of the fines they have put on the books.

The now-controversial code enforcement system gained notoriety in January when Mayor Riley Hill, a property developer, sued his own city in an effort to overturn a nuisance finding that resulted in a $500 penalty. 

Zach Olson, Hill’s lawyer, has since used city council meetings to call for a complete overhaul of the code enforcement system, citing excessive fines. The council subsequently ordered a moratorium against imposing any fines over $100 while city officials consider an amnesty plan to substantially reduce unpaid penalties.

While councilors in the past wanted to use high fines to implement their vision for city improvement, the current council has been more opposed to such measures.

City officials said in interviews that large fines and liens provide a “big stick” against the worst offenders.

The job of enforcing the city laws against nuisances rests with the Ontario Police Department.

“You can’t use a cookie cutter approach,” said Police Chief Steven Romero. “It wouldn’t be equitable to put the same fine on a residential property that has weeds as a commercial property that is disposing of waste.”

A CHANGE IN TACTIC

In 2017, the city’s system for enforcing city codes wasn't working. 

There were “numerous privately owned properties that are not properly maintained and in conditions that may cause health and safety concerns,” according to Ontario City Council minutes from the time. 

Ontario, like most cities, has health and sanitation laws to ensure that private properties - whether residential or commercial - don’t become nuisances. 

These nuisances, detailed in the Ontario Municipal Code, include noxious weeds, outdoor storage of household goods, derelict vehicles, and grass or weeds over 10 inches.

In one case, the Enterprise found that the city charged a property owner $29,800 for a “junk/derelict vehicle” that had a flat tire and no license plate.

In another case, a fine mounted to $70,375 in part because of a tree hanging over a sidewalk.

In 2017, the city’s response to a messy property was to hire a company to clean it up and then bill the property owner. The city found, however, that “many of the owners fail to pay fees which transfers the financial burden on city residents,” according to a 2017 city report.

The city’s solution was to create a process based on one in Salem.

Dallas Brockett, then an Ontario code enforcement officer, said in a recent interview that he didn’t pick Salem because it was a community similar to Ontario.

“I used Salem because it was just a possible solution to present to council for Ontario’s code issues at hand,” said Brockett. “Council at the time did not like how things were done and wanted improvement. I went to Salem to learn about their system and brought them a possible solution.”

The council adopted suggestions from Brockett in 2017 that provided for increasingly costly sanctions on property owners. The system starts with a five-day warning to the owner to clean up the property, with specific violations cited. If that isn’t heeded, the owner is issued an abatement notice, defining the violations and requiring they be remedied within 10 days.

The next step, if the nuisance remains, is imposing a penalty.

To do so, a code enforcement officer is required by city procedures to fill out a matrix that defines the severity of the violation, any steps taken to correct the violation, and if there have been previous violations at the location.

Those variables determine the fine, which can be as high as $2,000 per violation.

Once owners are notified of the penalty, city guidelines obtained by the Enterprise require officers to return seven days later to assess progress. If the nuisance remains, the city can impose fines for each day since the original penalty. The new penalty should equal one-fourth of the original fine times the number of days since the officer’s last inspection and invoice – seven.

City records documenting enforcement cases, however, show that it could be months before code officers returned for this second inspection visit. When they did make the belated inspection, they imposed the daily fine not for just seven days but for every day covering the months that the case lay dormant.

“If we did that, that would be where we couldn’t get in contact with anybody,” said Officer Rick Reyna, code enforcement officer. “We always try to make contact with somebody, but that would be some of the properties where they didn’t want to respond to us.”

Officer Rick Reyna presents information about hazards encountered in code enforcement work to the Ontario City Council at a meeting on Thursday, June 3. (ANGELINA KATSANIS/The Enterprise)

Romero said the code enforcement officer’s “voluminous” workload was likely responsible for delays in returning for inspections.

“It’s an uphill climb to be able to run it as smoothly as we want to when we only have one person working in that capacity,” Romero said. “I’d rather they’re late coming back to it than imposing civil penalties or sanctions too soon.”

Romero said delays provide property owners extra time to correct their violations. 

“You would hope going back that much later that it would’ve been corrected,” he said.

The consequences are grave if that is not so.

Records show that daily civil penalties compounded for 195 days against Marlow Pounds’ property in southeast Ontario before officers returned. That left the total owed at $68,850. 

In another case, daily civil penalties accumulated for 182 days against Naomi Brown’s property in northwest Ontario and resulted in $227,500 in fines.

In all, city records show that $976,227 is owed by 83 accounts. Over the last five years, $39,800 in civil penalties have been paid to the city of Ontario from just 20 accounts. 

City officials say they don’t use the program as a way to bolster the city treasury.

“It is not about money to me,” Reyna said. “It all comes down to compliance, for the properties to look nice.”

City Manager Adam Brown said of the unpaid fines that “none of us have or even still expect that it’s collectable.” 

As city manager, Brown plays a special role in the code enforcement system.

Property owners can appeal their fine to him and, according to the city code, the “objections shall be heard by the city manager or designee and shall be limited to the question of whether the amount of the abatement assessment is reasonable.”

Such appeals are supposed to be filed within 10 days but Brown said he has worked with property owners far beyond that deadline to reduce their fines once they were in compliance.

“There’s some broad language in there that gives me the authority to work with them,” Brown said. “What we take into account, whether it’s fair or unfair, is how responsible the owner is in the management of the property. In that case, we want responsible property owners.”

AN OWNER’S ODYSSEY

The gravel road to Ruth Uranga’s house in northwest Ontario runs directly off of busy U.S. 30.

“Only God can judge me” is spray painted on a concrete shed adjacent to her small wooden house.

Uranga, 38, grew up in that house, only recently moving to another place. Her brother remains in the family home she refers to as “our sanctuary.”

“It’s our memories, you know?” she said. “It was given to us by our parents, and it’s supposed to go to our kids.”

That line of succession is under threat as she faces penalties imposed by the city since 2019. 

Brockett documented the presence of “junk, garbage, debris and outdoor storage” in an April 30, 2019 report. 

Uranga recalled that the notice came at a moment when she had just demolished a pair of old campers that “weren’t worthy to be on the property” to sell as scrap metal.

“I knew that I did have to clean up the place,” she said. 

By city policy, officers are encouraged to first contact owners in person, by phone or by email, warning them of their infraction. 

According to Reyna, that interaction is an opportunity to learn more about the property owner’s circumstances, and ensure that they will be able to comply by the deadlines. 

“When we go out, I’m very polite to the people,” said Reyna. “I find out exactly what’s going on. Maybe they were sick, maybe they were out of town, they had to leave and they weren't able to get to the property. Some people have legitimate (reasons), but other people (don’t) do it because they don’t care about the property.”

Uranga said she was limited in what she could do.

“We didn’t have no vehicle or anything” to help move the junk off the property, she said. “My uncle would let us borrow his truck. Certain friends would come and help out.”

City records show that Uranga wasn’t issued an abatement letter requiring her to act until June 13 – long beyond the city’s own five-day deadline set to provide such a notice.

The case records show Brockett, the code enforcement officer, decided in September to fine her $700 – but he didn’t send an invoice until two months later.

Uranga said she remembered speaking with Brockett shortly after she received her first civil penalty. 

“He told me with his own words that they weren’t going to fine me anymore,” she said. 

Brockett said that he doesn’t remember saying that.

Subsequent city reports documented that Uranga had taken “some action” to address the issues. 

She said that circumstances in 2020 made it next to impossible to fully mitigate the situation. Besides the pandemic, Uranga said she suffered an abusive relationship, a miscarriage and the death of her mother.

Still, the city fines mounted through the year.

On March 3, Reyna returned to find tarps hanging from the house, a derelict vehicle on the lawn, and pallets, tires, and household goods strewn throughout the yard, according to city records.

This time, the city came down on Uranga, charging her for each violation during the 106 days since Brockett’s last visit in November 2019. The $700 fine multiplied overnight to $34,450. 

Notices of code enforcement violations hang on the window of a different fined property in Ontario. (ANGELINA KATSANIS/The Enterprise)

Through 2020, the city twice more added on daily penalties – there is no limit in city law.

Now, Uranga owes the city $74,250.

“I hope the community realizes we’re not all made of money,” Uranga said. 

But for Reyna, “It comes down to a sense of pride.” 

“Maybe it’s not the fanciest neighborhood, maybe it’s not the fanciest house, but you take pride in what you got,” he said.

A VETERAN GETS SNAGGED

Marlow Pounds is under no illusions that his property is perfect.

For almost 30 years, he has owned an eight-acre lot on Southeast Second Street that he once rented to local businesses for storage and parking.

Several buildings on the site were crushed in 2017 by snow. 

“I began hiring some people to help me clean it up after the storm. But I’m 80 years old. There was only so much I could do,” said Pounds.

In 2019, the city photographed bulldozers, trucks, tractors and other derelict vehicles scattered across Pounds’ lot. Pounds said batteries in the vehicles and machinery have been stolen over the years. 

This photo snapped by Officer Rick Reyna shows Marlow Pounds' property in August 2020. The photos were taken the same day Reyna assessed Pounds a $68,250 fine. (Photo courtesy of Ontario Police Department)

On Oct. 10, 2019, Brockett gave Pounds 10 days to clean up the property. The notice cited excessive weeds and grass, debris, garbage, derelict structures and vehicles, and other nuisances as reasons for the notice. Even by the city’s own standards, some of the violations were considered minor.

A week later, Pounds got an extension until Nov. 15 to act. But Brockett reported that when he returned on Nov. 25, the property “was still not in compliance.” 

Pounds was fined $600.

The case file shows no more city action until August 2020 – nine months after the initial fine. Then, according to city records, a city inspection found “some progress but not a lot” and levied a penalty of $68,250. That represented 195 days since the earlier notice and a finding that Pounds hadn’t cleaned the property.

Pounds, a former pilot in the Navy and once a sixth grade teacher at May Roberts Elementary School, said he felt “betrayed by the city” after the big fine.

He contested the penalty, writing to the city that its case was “not based under factual information” and that a contractor had “come every month and done a thorough weed cut back.”

His case went to an administrative hearing, a standard part of the appeal process available to owners but that is, according to city records, seldom used. An owner has to pay a $250 fee to appeal, to be refunded if the owner prevails.

Only 11 appeals have been filed since 2018 through April this year. Six cases went on to the hearing; the others were settled before.

Pounds said that at his hearing last year he told the hearings officer as a joke that “$5,000 would have gotten my attention but that a $68,000 fine is unreasonable.”

The decision last November gave Pounds another six months to comply – or pay the $5,000 that Pounds had suggested in jest.

Pounds said he couldn’t afford any of it. 

“I understand they want the city to look nice but they got carried away. They’ve hurt people. These aren’t Walmart-size businesses. These are small-time people,” said Pounds.

Pounds is now planning on selling the property, valued by the assessor at $524,000, to resolve the issue.

Romero said high fines sometimes lead to what’s best for the property.

In one problematic case, “it was only through civil penalties being so substantial that triggered the sale of a property by owners who weren’t willing to invest the money to take corrective action,” said Romero. 

FIGHTING CITY HALL

Della Warren finds herself in debt to the city partly as a result of the scrapping her husband did, using their lawn to store his “sell product.”

She faces a $28,300 penalty dating back to 2020 on a property in the southwest of town that the assessor values at $2,970.

She and her estranged husband have since progressed on cleaning up her yard to satisfy the city.

Warren sought help with her fine from the city.

“I’m going, ‘How do you dispute this? What do you do?” Warren said. “It was like phone tag for quite awhile.”

Warren said she works up to 55 hours a week at an assisted living facility, making it difficult for her to clean her property, let alone get in touch with the city about her progress. 

Romero believes that anyone making reasonable attempts to contact the city would succeed.

“The people that can’t get ahold of us, they don’t want to get ahold of us,” he said. “They know they got a civil penalty, and they don’t want to deal with it.”

But according to Warren, that isn’t the case.

Della Warren stands on the front lawn of her property in Ontario, which has accumulated $28,300 in fines since May 2020. (ANGELINA KATSANIS/The Enterprise)

“I wasn’t trying to ignore it, I didn’t know how to respond,” she said. “There was numbers there and names on the letter, but every time I call it’s ‘We’re out of the office, leave a message.’” 

Warren said Reyna never made contact with her and all the city notices were placed in her mailbox. 

Warren said she finally went to the police department for help and was referred to the city manager.

She said she finally made contact after three or four calls.

Brown said he was working with Warren and told her, “I’m going to have a code enforcement officer go out there and take a look. If it’s good then I’ll waive your fines.”

But a new player entered the picture – Ontario attorney Zach Olson. He agreed to represent her at no charge while he also was representing the mayor in his ongoing legal fight with the city over his fines.

Warren joined Uranga in appearing before city councilors in May, part of a presentation orchestrated by Olson to push for reforms of the nuisance ordinances.

Olson said in a later interview that the city should drop all such fines, or at least bring in an outside party to review them.

“The city should not use the threat of an insane $227,500 fine to bully some lady into paying $1,500,” he said, referring to the maximum property owners would owe under the amnesty plan.

For now, the city council has suspended action on the past-due penalties and limited the fine that could be imposed on new violations to $100.

Romero said he found the limit “completely ineffective.”

Last week, city officials started accepting applications to serve on a special task force to examine the code enforcement program.

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or Joey Cappelletti at [email protected]

RELATED COVERAGE:

Riley Hill, mayor of Ontario, sues his own city over $500.

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