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09.21.06 -- REPORT: Clearing codes, battling bias, Part 2 - Pedro's Elephant

Clearing codes, battling bias: Pedro's elephant

Part 2 of 3 articles about Mcintosh's latest Code Enforcement Board meeting

By CHER PHILLIPS

The quasi-judicial style code enforcement meeting began mired in confusion. It shouldn't be a shock that it remained that way, ending with one board member walking out but only after stonewalling the opposition.

Public notices said the meeting started at 6 p.m. Attorney notices sent to residents who had business before the board said the meeting would begin at 6:30 p.m. -- though some claimed they were never noticed. It wasn't the first time meetings that determine fines and have the potential to affect property rights have been changed at the last minute without notice. No agenda was made available to the public for this meeting.

During the 30 minutes the board, the lawyers and the audience waited for the meeting to start, Chairman Harris Fellman spelled out rules for audience interaction in the meeting. At one point, Attorney Sam Mutch, who represented three clients facing the code enforcement board this month, said to one of his clients that the procedures explained by Harris weren’t normally how meetings were handled. To that comment, he was called out by board member Bill Glass, who said Munch needed to come up to the front of the room and repeat his comment where Glass could hear him.

What had to be established Wednesday night was whether Molinas had torn down the building completely or not. By tearing it town, he would free his house from the lien the town has against him.

Molinas building was on the town’s right-of-way. The code enforcement board took him to court and at one point last January, his fines were mounting at $250 per day. According to the board member’s comments Wednesday, though he will be released from the lien, the board will decide what fees and fines to charge him. Attorney Scott Walker, who acts as the town attorney was prosecuting the case for the town, said his fees to date were $1,882.80 in the Molinas case.

Both current and former code enforcement officers testified for the town that Molinas had not yet removed all the metal from the concrete pad. Some of the metal structure still remained bolted down to the concrete.

The current officer, Phil Howell, answered tedious questions from Mutch during cross-examination on the remainder of Molinas' building. But it was former code enforcement officer Art Davis who lost his temper during this process.

As a witness for the town, Davis was then coached through the process by the code enforcement board’s attorney Eric Gifford. It is unknown why Davis was not coached by the town’s attorney, Walker, who was acting as the prosecutor. Davis was a witness for the prosecution. Gifford is the code enforcement board attorney and paid by the town to assist the code enforcement board. One of the board's roles is to hear residents cases fairly.

During the defense of his case, Molinas’s lawyer Sam Mutch asked him how much it cost him to remove the building.

Molinas refused to give a number saying he didn’t want to get into the cost.


“I’ve spent quite a bit of my savings,” Molinas said. “I want to get on with my life.”


Before the meeting began, Fellman sent around a sign-in sheet to residents in attendance. He also said if any person wanted to address the board, they would have to sign a card before the hearing with their name, address and make known before speaking which side of the issue they wanted to speak on. As it turned out during in the meeting, residents had to be sworn in to address the board.

Resident Linda Elwood was sworn-in but did not state whether she was testifying for or against Molinas. While the board members are supposed to hear the information that comes before the board during these cases objectively, without bias, and make decisions about McIntosh’s residents’ property rights, it appeared from comments made that both Glass and Fellman knew what Elwood had to say before she said it.

At one point during the hearing of Molinas case, Glass told Elwood, “Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance.”

Fellman, also, indicated he knew what she had to say when he said there was a neighbor who wanted to speak on the matter.

“Pedro has not spoken to me since I filed the complaint…,” Elwood said as she began her testimony.

Mutch protested that her comments were not relevant.

She said that she thought the lien should be lifted against Molinas but said the metal remnants of his building could be dangerous if a child or adult fell on them and that they needed to be removed.

She, Fellman and Glass indicated there were other items in Molinas' yard that concerned them. Molinas said he left the garage door that had been part of his building sitting on the slab to protect it until he can finalize its sale. He offered several times to put a tarp over the items.

But a tarp did not seem to be what Glass, and other residents watching in the audience, were looking to hear. Glass went as far as to ask about when items other than the garage door would be cleared away.

Mutch argued that these items, which had been inside his building before he had to tear it down, were not the issue.

At one point, Glass joked that they were going to this monkey off Molinas back.

“Monkey? Elephant,” Molinas said.

Mutch’s representation was a source of argument for board members Glass and Fellman.

Molinas’ second language is English. After his case, he shook hands with his judges, jury and prosecutor. But before the meeting began, he didn’t seem to understand the process. When he was called, he didn’t understand he needed to step forward. Audience member Charlsie Stott told him when to go up to take the stand, saying, “Pedro, it’s your time.”

Mutch contended that this was one reason why he needed to speak for his client. When he told the board he was representing Molinas, Glass said, “Well, that’s bad.”

Mutch asked then, for the first time during the meeting, that Glass recuse himself – meaning he should step down from that portion of the meeting due to prejudice or personal involvement – because he had a personal bias against the attorney.

Glass refused and Fellman, as chairman, wouldn’t make him stating the board would not have quorum if one of them stepped down.

Only three board members were present. A third board member, Jim Winters, said very little during the proceedings. He did concur with Glass and Fellman that the slab was not completely clear and would like to see Molinas clear the slab and come back. Since the meeting fell on Wednesday, a church night, other board members were absent.

During Mutch’s opening statements of Molinas’ defense, Glass got up from the table, without comment or apology, and began rearranging the chairs near his seat at the table.

Both Glass and Fellman seemed to have a problem with the attorneys in the room.

At one point Fellman said, “None of us are trained attorneys, the attorneys either.”

The comment met a strained silence with the two attorneys the town of McIntosh was paying to attend the meeting and Mutch, who was representing three separate code enforcement board cases.

Over and over again, Glass brushed aside any legitimacy in arguments made by Mutch. Fellman, as chair, made similar comments as Mutch defended his clients.

“We know that someone’s trying to goad us,” Fellman said. He repeated the comment later in the meeting.

Glass swore twice during the meeting. The first time, Mutch protested. The second time Glass swore, “Jesus Christ,” Mutch protested.

“It was a prayer,” Glass said.

Molinas’ case will be continued to Sept. 27 – a Wednesday – after he’s been given a chance to remove the rest of the metal attached to the concrete slab. His fees and fines will be determined then.

“I don’t know why he built this thing,” Glass said as Molinas’ case came to a close. “But I bet he won’t do it again.”


Read about another case before the McIntosh Code Enforcement board in Part 3: The Great Wall of McIntosh

posted by Cher @ 9:52 PM,

1 Comments:

At   September 24, 2006 10:20 AM     ,    Anonymous Anonymous    said...

There is no excuse for a board member of this community to address attorneys as Mr. Fellman did: "None of us are trained attorneys, the attorneys either."

How dare he represent the people of our community in such a disrespectful way. These people need to go!

 

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Editor and Publisher:

I'm Cher From McIntosh, FL I'm a graduate student at the University of Florida working on a master's degree in Mass Communication. While I was finishing my undergrad degree in journalism last year, I reported on McIntosh, Fla. for an in-depth reporting class. I figured that the reporting and the public record files should go somewhere people can access them. Reporters don't report to keep the information they find to themselves. Some of that reporting is included here in a forum that allows response. McIntosh suffers because with no news coverage, the local government and the rumor mill have too much potential to run rampant over residents. I moved to McIntosh in the fall of 1999. My profile

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