Litter court on hold as EBR officials seek improved tools for blight

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Watson Williams III, of the Baton Rouge Public Works Department, cuts grass and small shrubs in a vacant lot in the 900 block of North 46th Street on Friday. The crew had a list of around 110 vacant lots in the 70802 ZIP code to mow. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Watson Williams III, of the Baton Rouge Public Works Department, cuts grass and small shrubs in a vacant lot in the 900 block of North 46th Street on Friday. The crew had a list of around 110 vacant lots in the 70802 ZIP code to mow.

Officials seek other tools for blight

Launched in August 2009 with considerable fanfare, the city-parish litter court system was created to attack blight by forcing property owners to clean up trash, debris and overgrown lots. But the court part turned out not to work so well.

In March, city-parish officials decided to stop having litter scofflaws ordered into court because it was doing little good. The program lacked teeth, said William Daniel, Mayor-President Kip Holden’s chief administrative officer.

“Right now, we’re retooling the process,” he said.

The original idea was for city-parish workers to identify violations, then send offenders letters informing them of the problems and giving them a date to appear in litter court for a hearing on the matter.

An offender has 15 days to address the violation. Failure to do so results in a $117 fine.

The problem in part, Daniel said, was a lack of specific direction in the original ordinance about how the Department of Public Works should track the cited property and who, exactly, was responsible for cleaning up when the property owners failed to do so.

DPW Director David Guillory also said that, other than two fines, the ordinance didn’t call for a specific disciplinary action for owners who refused to clean up their property.

“There would be fines. One fine and a second fine. But nothing would happen. But we would still get calls from people complaining about the property,” Guillory said.

Guillory and Daniel said the city-parish is looking at several different approaches to get the program back on track and litter court back open.

Guillory is working on a proposed new blight ordinance that will detail what will happen to property owners who don’t clean up. Although it won’t happen often, the city-parish could in some cases foreclose on property in noncompliance, Guillory said.

“We’re not trying to foreclose on little old ladies,” Guillory said.

“Blight is such a problem in this parish. We have so many absentee land owners who have adjudicated property. Nobody cares about what goes on there,” Guillory said.

Besides a new ordinance, which could be presented to the Metro Council for approval in January, Guillory said DPW has created a new position, blight manager.

“That’s all they will do. And hopefully, that person can present the new blight ordinance to the Metro Council,” Guillory said.

Guillory said he could start advertising for the new position in 30 days.

Guillory said he also plans on implementing a new work order system to streamline how DPW makes sure blighted property gets cleaned up.

Right now, work orders are sent to the departments responsible for the work. Once the new work order system is in place, work orders will be sent to the mobile devices — smartphones, computer tablets — of supervisors who will then possess a continuous “to do” list, Guillory said.

Code enforcement officers out in the field will also get the work orders directly on their mobile devices. GPS systems will also be placed on all DPW work trucks so city-parish officials know exactly where trucks are and what employees are doing, Guillory said.

Asked if he was happy about the direction of the litter court program, Metro Council member John Delgado responded, “What direction? It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I think we should try and add a city court judge to the bench and have real prosecutors enforce a litter court. Why have a separate process?” Delgado said.

Delgado said property owners would take blight more seriously if prosecutors were added to the equation, rather than handling the process through an administrative hearing officer.

“Blighted property attracts criminals like moths to a flame. Blight gives criminals a place to hide so we need to be much more aggressive,” Delgado said.

Daniel and Guillory said the new, retooled blight court and program will need dedicated funding to be successful.

“Manpower and funding is an issue,” Guillory said.

Guillory also said the new blight manager will have to address how to get the funding for blight control.

Daniel said there is so much blight in the parish that the city-parish could easily become the largest landscaping company offering services for free.

“We could go bankrupt if we continue to clean up like this,” Daniel said.