(JOLIET) Eric McNeff just wanted to build a landscaped berm to protect his two young children from traffic on Francis Road in New Lenox Township. Now, thousands of dollars later, he has learned he first must obtain a Will County permit and submit a plan for approval.
Adrian Martinez, of Joliet, said he got what he expected — a $100 fine for not cleaning up his yard.
But Lyubomir Alexandrov was not out any money — and was “happy” — after a hearing officer agreed to give him more time to evict squatters on his Lockport property before levying a fine for allowing the structure to fall into disrepair.
All three are among 1,826 Will County residents ticketed between July 1 — when the county began a new adjudication system — and late January. With adjudication, people cited for certain offenses in unincorporated parts of the county attend a procedure with a hearing officer instead of going to court and having a case heard before a judge.
But some residents are finding themselves being ticketed for violations that previously were not enforced. In fact, Frankfort Township officials recently sent letters to residents to serve them notice that county officials were “strictly” enforcing laws “that were not enforced in the past.”
Officials say the program was not implemented to make the county money, but to achieve compliance with laws and rules that already had been on the books.
The new procedure
If you park illegally, throw litter from your vehicle, fail to obtain a building permit or a rabies tag, or neglect property maintenance, here’s your wake-up call: You could be ticketed for these — and many other offenses — and if you contest it, a ruling will be made swiftly.
On a recent Monday afternoon, hearing officer Stephanie Posey quietly and calmly dispensed justice, giving county officials and each alleged violator a chance to explain his or her circumstances.
Not everyone left happy.
“I’m (ticked),” McNeff said as he left the county board room, where the adjudication hearings are held. Like many others, he didn’t know he needed a permit, didn’t know he was violating county ordinances. But ignorance is no defense.
He was fined $200 plus $50 in hearing costs. He said he had to pay $1,500 for an engineering drawing of his berm, “which they never even looked at,” and now will be charged 11/2 times the cost of a permit, or $1,012, for getting it after the fact.
Martinez, on the other hand, thought he was treated fairly.
“They gave me two months to clean up my yard; I just never got around to it,” he said of his $100 fine plus $50 court cost. “They want the community to be clean. My yard should be kept up.”
Land-use department director Curt Paddock said his code enforcement staff has always issued such tickets when there is a complaint, but the cases languished in the overburdened court system for 18 to 24 months before getting resolved.
By comparison, between July 1 and Jan. 27, the land-use department cracked down on 148 people who didn’t get a building permit. More than 30 had expired permits, and more than 60 were cited for prohibited uses in their zoning. Some were cited for harboring rodents, defacement of property or accumulation of garbage. Many land-use violators were ticketed because they were previously notified of a violation and ignored it.
Each adjudication hearing lasts about 15 minutes, and adding the process has “significantly increased compliance” in the past six months, said Elizabeth Dunn, code enforcement manager in the land-use department.
About half of the cases are dismissed before reaching the hearing stage, because property owners have worked with staff and complied with the ordinances, she said.
According to Will County officials, this system is less labor intensive, saves taxpayer dollars and staff time, and benefits those who may have been impacted by such problems. It’s a more relaxed setting, with a hearing officer — who is an attorney, not a judge — freeing up judges to deal with more serious crimes.
It’s also designed to be more convenient for offenders, who don’t have to take a day off work to go to court, since hearings are held later in the afternoon. They also may pay the fine up front and comply with the law to avoid the hearing. They have the right to an attorney and the right to appeal.
County board member Reed Bible, who chairs the judicial committee, likes that minor drug offenses are now local violations rather than criminal matters.
“If you catch a kid smoking a joint, you don’t want to charge him with a something criminal at such a young age,” he said. Officers have the option of charging such an offender with an ordinance violation.
Despite the conveniences and efficiencies of the new adjudication system, it’s not without its challenges. Some receiving citations claimed they either were unaware of the law or were ticketed for something they have been doing regularly. Others can’t afford the fines.
This relatively young program has a few “growing pains,” and some ordinances and fines may need to be tweaked, said Nick Palmer, chief of staff for county Executive Larry Walsh.
“We are getting it rolling and getting people to understand these are the laws even though they were never enforced,” he said. “Our intent is to encourage compliance on issues that were never really addressed because there was no way to address them (without clogging up the courts).”
“People have been complaining because they are getting tickets for things they have been doing,” Will County sheriff’s department spokeswoman Kathy Hoffmeyer said.
According to Will County figures, most tickets were issued in the heavily populated areas — 317 in Joliet Township, 285 in Lockport Township, 261 in Frankfort Township and 185 in New Lenox Township through Jan. 27.
Most issued by the sheriff’s department were for parking violations: parking in the opposite direction of traffic, on a sidewalk, in a crosswalk, within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, 20 feet of a crosswalk, or 30 feet from a stop sign or traffic signal.
Still others were cited for possession of marijuana, underage consumption, fires, fireworks, littering or barking dogs.
To address the complaints from uninformed residents, the Will County sheriff’s department turned to township officials to get the word out in the unincorporated areas.
“Our goal is to share information and we will do our best,” Homer Township Supervisor Pam Myers said, suggesting that information be provided on the township’s website or televised meetings, or the cable TV bulletin board.
“If the laws are important enough to put on the books, they are important enough to be enforced,” she said.
Myers said this “could be a good thing” because she typically gets more complaints about issues that are not being addressed, such as open burning and construction debris.
“We get complaints from people who are mad that nothing is being done about it,” she said.
Frankfort Township officials recently sent letters informing their residents that the sheriff’s department has begun “strictly enforcing state laws ... that were not enforced in the past.” It acknowledged that “the sheriff’s department did not notify residents about this change in policy,” and that residents are “upset and frustrated” about being cited. It said more information can be found by visiting www.amlegal.com/library, a site that lists all of the county’s ordinances.
Paddock said there are so many ordinances that there is “no practical means of educating every homeowner in Will County.”
“Don’t assume that you don’t need a permit. Call us,” he said. As more land owners get tickets, however, he believes the word will filter out about what’s legal.
About the money ...
Fines can range from $35 to $250 plus hearing fees, but another challenge is collecting from people who can’t afford to pay.
Violators have been assessed $168,000 in fines, but only $48,775 had been collected by late January, according to Bible.
“It’s not intended to make a profit, but the goal is to make it pay for itself,” said Bible, whose committee is now exploring how to deal with those who don’t pay up.
“If the fine has no teeth, is it really a fine?” he said.
The program has not yet paid for itself. It cost $120,360 to get started, according to county figures. That included $95,240 for hardware and software. Staff costs were $18,088 for the hearing officer, $3,556 for a clerk and $3,475 for sheriff’s deputies to provide security at the hearings.
No additional manpower was hired to write citations in any county departments, officials said.
The goal of the program was not to make money, but to achieve compliance, Palmer said.
“We want to be responsive and not create issues for residents. We want to be reasonable. We’re committed to encouraging compliance without being over the top, or too heavy-handed, but we may have to make adjustments,” he said.
Instead of taking people to court, Palmer said, “This is more of a ‘Hey, wake up!’ ”
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