Aerial scenes of Central Ave business district downtown Middletown

Judge: Middletown’s debated new punishment system has ‘a lot of tentacles’

Middletown City Council on Tuesday voted 3-2 to adopt a civil penalty notice ordinance that will provide an option aside from forcing violators to appear in court. That will enable any city enforcement officers, such as police, code enforcement or building inspectors, to issue civil penalty notices for violations of about 220 sections of the city’s municipal code.

Vice Mayor Talbott Moon and Councilman Steve Bohannon voted against the ordinance. Prior to the vote, Moon had unsuccessfully moved to table the ordinance for additional review.

The civil penalty notices could be issued for offenses that would range from minor traffic/pedestrian infractions to not having the appropriate permits, inoperable vehicles, dogs running at large or barking, trees and branches that overhang right of ways.

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Those enforcement officers also will have the discretion to give a warning as well as issue civil notices or criminal citations. People who receive these notices will be required to pay a fine or request an administrative hearing to contest the alleged violations, according to the proposed ordinance.

MORE: Middletown considering new notices to avoid court appearances

Depending on the infraction, civil penalty fines can range from $50 to $150 and will double if the fines are delinquent, according to the proposed ordinance. However, civil offense violations and criminal charges cannot be filed simultaneously. There are also provisions to have civil fines reduced.

Decisions by the hearing examiner can be appealed to the Butler County Common Pleas Court.

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Several people said they had concerns about the ordinance’s standards for compliance, due process, constitutionality and training for officers.

Resident Joe Wittman called the ordinance an “overreach” and likened it to “applying a tourniquet where a Band-Aid is needed.”

MORE: Middletown property owners criticize new ‘heavy-handed’ city code on some downtown buildings

Wittman said he has seen the vacant buildings ordinance “used as a tool of intimidation” by the city.

“I doubt this legislation is necessary for the city,” Wittman said. “I believe it is too broadly and vaguely written. It has few checks on centralized power and I fear it will be too easily abused.”

His wife, Sue Wittman, expressed concerns that people cited would appear before a hearing officer who would be appointed by the city manager instead of an elected judge. She raised concerns about notices being sent by regular mail.

“I have concerns with the direction the city is going in,” she said.

Local landlord Dan Tracy said the city already has most of these violations on the books that can already be enforced.

“Raise the fines, but we don’t need another ordinance,” he said. “We have these already in place.”

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Middletown Municipal Court Judge James Sherron said he understands some of the concerns raised by residents as valid issues and added that he has issues with the executive branch adjudicating violations and possible due process issues.

“There’s a lot of tentacles to this octopus,” he said.

Sherron told this news outlet that he agreed with “60 to 70 percent” of the ordinance but would have preferred to discuss it with the city administration as the ordinance was developed.

MORE: How a wrecking ball pulled Middletown from a funk and led to big projects changing downtown

City Manager Doug Adkins said many of the offenses have been on the books for decades and nothing has changed. He said enforcement officers have always had discretion whether to issue a warning or a citation.

Adkins, a former city prosecutor, said due process and an appeals process was included in the ordinance and that training for officers has been scheduled this month before the ordinance takes effect on July 4. He also said similar ordinances have been enacted in other Ohio cities and have survived court challenges.

The Middletown ordinance is modeled after one used by the city of Cincinnati.

“This is stuff that’s been done in other cities,” Adkins said. “No ordinance is a silver bullet. This will be a tool that will affect some people.”

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