Lox Groves Council May Give Magistrate Leeway In Settling Fines

In the future, reducing fines or removing liens applied for code violations in Loxahatchee Groves might be resolved by the town’s special magistrate rather than the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council.

The council approved a motion Tuesday, July 18 directing town staff to prepare an ordinance authorizing the special magistrate to decide lien mitigation requests for fines imposed by the magistrate and authorize the mayor to execute the release of liens once they are satisfied.

In a memo to the council, Town Attorney Michael Cirullo pointed out that the town currently does not provide any direction or authority for resolving fine amounts in code cases where a lien has been recorded.

In the absence of any direction to the contrary, any requests for lien reductions would need to be considered and acted upon by the council. The council, however, has not had the benefit of hearing the case and deciding a fine, so consideration and fair evaluation of these requests is often difficult for council members. Cirullo recommended that the council authorize the special magistrate to consider lien mitigation requests.

Vice Mayor Ron Jarriel had the item pulled from the consent agenda to question a change in the process.

“The one thing that bothered me about this was we have had situations where people have brought their problems to the council when it comes to fines, where we waived them,” Jarriel said. “If I understand this correctly, that will be taken out of the hands of the council. The council has always been the final say for a resident to try and get their problem resolved.”

Cirullo said that a resident still would be able to appeal to the council, and explained that under Florida Statutes, once a matter goes through code enforcement and a violation is found that is not complied with, the magistrate can certify a fine, which becomes a lien that gets recorded as a public record in the court system.

“That lien runs in favor of the local governing body, which is you all,” Cirullo said. “In the absence of any direction or ability to resolve it, anybody who wants to deal with a code lien would have to come to the council. That would be whether they want to have a reduction or they want to get a release for something other than the total amount. In many cities that I am familiar with, they provide that process to the magistrate who heard the case to determine what the final fine should be. The magistrate has heard the case, and they’re familiar with the violation.”

Under the town’s current circumstances, once the lien has been set, the violator has no recourse but to appeal to the council, which has not heard the case.

“If you don’t want to go with this process, if you give us any other direction, or you want to give any authority to the magistrate, we need to prepare an ordinance for you to do that,” Cirullo said. “If you want the magistrate to have any authority to deal with it, we need to put it in an ordinance.”

Cirullo said he has seen instances where the mitigation goes to the magistrate first and, if there is dissatisfaction, it gets appealed to the council.

“This could reduce the workload on you,” he said. “I’m not sure how many liens we have, but… code enforcement is back up and running. There’s going to be more liens, and we need to have something on the books to tell us how to handle it.”

Cirullo said the special magistrate is usually a good first step in mitigating fines.

“They can hear from folks, and they are used to conducting those hearings,” he said. “They’re also a little bit removed from the personalities.”

Jarriel said he would like to see the final decision rest with the council, if necessary.

“Most problems can probably be solved by the magistrate, but as a last resort, they should be able to come to the council,” he said. “There’s five of us, and that’s different than one magistrate weighing-in on situations.”

Cirullo said having the magistrate consider mitigation of the case before a possible appeal to the council would give the council the benefit of reviewing the magistrate’s consideration.

Under state statutes, unless the council decides otherwise, if the magistrate sets a lien, the violator has the option of appealing to a circuit court judge. Cirullo pointed out that the town has the ability to do that as well, if it believes the magistrate has not settled the case appropriately.

Cirullo added that there are two cases outstanding that he would like the council to refer to the magistrate by a motion that evening.

“Otherwise, we would have to schedule the two that we’ve gotten for you to consider right now,” he said.

Jarriel made a motion to let the magistrate handle the cases, with the ability for a last resort appeal to the council, which carried 5-0.

Councilman Todd McLendon voted in favor of the motion, although he was concerned that he has seen similar issues become politicized when they come before the council.

“I’ve been on the other side, and I’ve come to the council when I wasn’t a council member to ask for something to be waived,” he said, explaining how difficult the process was. “Sometimes, it’s not fair to put that pressure on the council like that.”