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County looks for ways to bypass judge on code cases

Some high-profile Hernando County officials are growing tired of doing battle with County Judge Peyton Hyslop.

Hyslop's refusal to uphold politically charged rules, such as watering restrictions, has some county commissioners and department heads considering whether to take such matters out of his hands.

Florida Statutes, Chapter 162, gives counties clear alternatives to using a county judge for appeals of code enforcement fines and penalties, County Attorney Garth Coller said.

"To me, it's just axiomatic. If one is not working, you try another," said Coller, adding that if it were up to him, he would move quickly to a special master or code enforcement board. "But I'm not. As long as Kent Weissinger and Frank McDowell are content with the system the way it is, then I don't have to deal with it."

Weissinger is the assistant county attorney assigned to handle code enforcement issues. McDowell heads the Code Enforcement Department.

Both acknowledged that this discussion has been in the air for several months.

When Hyslop rebuffs hours of hard work with his rulings, morale among code enforcement officers suffers, McDowell said. They do not arbitrarily pick someone to cite for code violations, he said, but the judge seems to question their work.

"I think they would want an alternative," McDowell said.

He said he wanted to talk with others before deciding what direction to recommend.

Weissinger, meanwhile, suggested that a change could be for the worse.

"A lot of it depends on who the special master is," he said.

Over the past three years, Hyslop has ruled in favor of the county about 80 percent of the time, Weissinger said. Just not always on the more notable issues.

"My own feeling is, I don't see at this point a pressing need to go in and change the process, although it is something we have been looking at since the judge's more visible rulings against us," Weissinger said.

He listed as examples Hyslop's decisions on the county's watering restrictions and its ban on the docking of commercial boats in residential areas.

Regarding watering restrictions, Hyslop has taken the position that just showing the water was on isn't good enough. To make the charge stick, he says, an officer must prove the person cited actually turned on the water.

Weissinger said it might be better to appeal Hyslop's "clearly wrong" rulings, and to amend the rules when Hyslop makes sense.

"Sometimes the easiest thing to do is not change the system or rail against the judge, but to rewrite the ordinance," he said. "My input to Garth is, let's be cautious in making any wholesale changes."

County Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley is pondering the situation, too.

For two years, Kingsley has sought to create a board with legislative authority to deal with construction complaints. Perhaps such a body could handle development and code enforcement appeals rather than offering the county judge as the sole option, he suggested.

"I've always believed in an alternative venue," Kingsley said.

Many of the players will have their eyes fixed on Hyslop's courtroom Wednesday afternoon, when he has 25 watering violations on his docket. If Hyslop continues to throw out tickets because code enforcement officers cannot prove the person fined actually turned on the water, the wheels of change might move more quickly.

"It will definitely give us some direction as to whether we need to set up some kind of group before it goes to the court," Kingsley said.

If they go that direction, commissioners might find another party wanting to jump on board. The county Development Department also is exploring whether to remove consideration of unlicensed contracting cases from the judge, said Jim Friedrichs, contractor certification supervisor.

"We're trying to increase the number of people we issue citations to," Friedrichs said. "We're not as successful in civil court as we think we would be before a special master, to say it nicely."

The County Commission abandoned its code enforcement board a decade ago as bureaucratic and ineffective. The board took months to levy fines, Development Director Grant Tolbert said at the time, and the county had trouble collecting.

Commissioners changed the process to allow code enforcement officers to issue fines for non-compliance, with appeals going to the county judge.

Hyslop said the county officials with whom he has talked generally seem pleased with having code enforcement appeals handled in County Court. The possibility of having to go to court is an incentive for many residents to comply with the laws, he said.

Any change in the way the cases are adjudicated, Hyslop said, is "totally up to the Board of County Commissioners."

_ Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115.