Wilmington residents question integrity of License & Inspections Department

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Photo: Kayak

Are residents receiving erroneous tickets in the mail? Some say they are, others say they are the subject of repeat violations that don’t exist.

WILMINGTON (DE): One of the biggest complaints from city home owners and residents are sanitary code inspectors and recently, instant ticketing has caused a lot of tension between homeowners and the Inspections Department. Now, residents who live in Wilmington are coming forward to not only voice their concern, but question the program’s integrity and transparency of city inspectors as well.

ERRONEOUS TICKETS: “It may be the inspector has the wrong house”

Some city home owners say they receive tickets for sanitary code violations without notice. What’s worse is some of these home owners are getting their neighboring home’s tickets, while others say they are getting them when no violation actually exist.

“It may be the inspector has the wrong house”, said Henry Pilichowski from the Hedgeville neighborhood in the city.

Story highlights

  • City residents question instant ticketing system
  • Residents want transparency in License & Inspections Department “many residents feel ‘targeted’”.
  • Erroneous tickets being mailed

During the James Baker administration, the city of Wilmington launched a new ordinance in 2007 that targets sanitation violations. It’s what some officials are calling “Eye sore” violations, using an Instant Ticketing System or “ITS”. Wilmington’s program shadows what the county was, and still is, using today.

You can get an instant ticket without notice, and that decision rests solely on the inspector, explains Jeff Starkey, commissioner of Wilmington License and Inspections Department.

“In recent years, inspectors were given the option to issue warnings again rather than immediately ticket if the situation warranted it.”, Starkey said.

The goal behind the program is to improve the appearance of Wilmington’s neighborhoods and allows city officials an immediate way to deal with the sanitation issues occurring throughout the city.

Instant Ticketing Program

The Instant Ticketing Program is considered a model program throughout the U.S. It has been awarded the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) 2008 City Livability Award. The Department of Licenses & Inspections has presented the program to municipalities throughout Delaware and before the USCM Vacant & Abandoned Properties Task Force.

Wilmington’s Instant Ticketing Program allows City Code Enforcement Inspectors to be more proactive in seeking out and citing various sanitation problems that disturb the quality of life in our neighborhoods. Under the program, inspectors can issue instant $50 fines, similar to a parking ticket, upon those property owners who violate the City’s sanitation codes (i.e. litter, accumulation of fecal matter, high grass/weeds, improper trash disposal, illegal dumping).” Property owners who receive a citation for violating the City’s sanitation code have 30 calendar days of the date of the citation to pay their $50 fine.

However, not all violations require an instant ticket Starkey explains, “In some cases, if they (inspectors) determine that the issue doesn’t rise to the level of a ticket, they could issue a warning.”

According to city officials, “Instant Ticketing has not only improved the appearance of our neighborhoods and created an immediate way to deal with sanitation issues, but has also helped us positively change the attitudes and behavior of the residents and visitors of our City.”

Kathryn Hendrix who lives in the Hedgeville neighborhood disagrees. She said, “trying to clean up the neighborhood is giving warnings and then fining residents when the warnings aren’t taken seriously.” She feels that “Instant fines are nothing more than a way for the city to fill its coffers from tax payers who already pay.”

3rd Circuit Court of Appeals: DOWD VS WILMINGTON Ruled Instant Ticketing was unconstitutional and violated citizens due rights process.

Hon Sue Robinson
Hon Sue Robinson | 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals

Back in 2012 the county’s program was suspended and amended following a class action suit that was filed in 2010 by Christine Dowd, Damon Morris, and Roy Morris. The case was heard in 2012 by district judge Sue Robinson in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Robinson ruled the new law was unconstitutional and violated due process rights and ruled partially in favor of the plaintiffs. She found that a 2008 New Castle ordinance establishing a civil, “Instant Ticketing Program” for sanitation code violations was “patently an unconstitutional procedure.”

According to court documents, the suit alleged that the instant ticketing system, which allowed the county to collect civil penalties for property code violations prior to providing a hearing on the issue, violated the due process clause of the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution.

Since the Court ruled partially against the County’s program, the city of Wilmington amended their appeal process and better clarified their program. While some think the city’s program was affected or was suspended, Starkey says that wasn’t the case.

“During this time, enforcement was not suspended” -Jeff Starkey, commissioner at Wilmington License and Inspections.

Dowd vs Wilmington

A BROKEN PROCESS “Due process is supposed to include a warning or two being issued prior to a ticket being issued, as well as an express way of appeal being listed on the ticket itself. You shouldn’t just be getting tickets out of no where”, said one resident.
“We adopted this program more than five years ago because too many citizens were ignoring the need to keep their properties in respectable shape, which was in turn severely damaging our neighborhoods. The Instant Ticketing program produced a dramatic change in the negative behavior of some property owners.”, said then former Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker.

Due process is supposed to include a warning or two being issued prior to a ticket being issued, as well as an express way of appeal being listed on the ticket itself. You shouldn’t just be getting tickets out of no where said Stephanie Dougherty from Union Park Gardens.

In 2012 if you received an instant ticket and wanted an appeal, you had to pay the ticket along with a non-refundable administrative fee. Enforcement at the property was also enforced during the appeal process. So while waiting for an appeal, you could also receive additional tickets for not correcting the first issue, and before you know it, you could end up owing hundreds of dollars.

“The City did decide to amend its appeal process to replace the requirement that a property owner pay the ticket at the time of appeal (and if successful, the money would be refunded) with a non-refundable $15 appeal fee.  It also made clear in the ordinance that no further tickets would be issued to a property owner while an appeal is pending.  While the code was being amended, enforcement was stayed for a short period of time.”, Starkey said.

Now, if you appeal a ticket, you don’t have to pay the ticket but you do have to pay a $15.00 non-refundable administrative fee and enforcement at the property is suspended until the appeal is resolved.

Citizens want accountability and a transparent government in Wilmington

So what happens when the city doesn’t take responsibility for their own erroneous ticketing under the new law?

While residents can call in complaints, the program is not dependent on resident call-in complaints alone. “Inspectors often conduct walking tours of their specific districts identifying potential code violators.” If after they identify the issue as a violation, inspectors may issue an instant ticket. In some cases, if they determine that the issue doesn’t rise to the level of a ticket they could issue a warning, Starkey said.

According to Gail Yborra, from the Trinity neighborhood, “This problem came up at a WCC (Wilmington City Council) meeting last year. We requested a better method for handling “violations”. People who need assistance can still be fined.” She also noted that “if they want to do this right, they could knock on one’s door and speak to the owner/rentor about whatever issue they perceive needs to be addressed. That would be city-friendly. Any written warning should be on one’s front door (or mailed the same day) with X # of days to address the problem.

Are residents being targeted by inspectors?

Nelson Santos from Cool Springs neighborhood said, “They also only get ticket to select people by race or color. Depend of the inspector and of course if they know you you never get one. You get notification and time to correct the problem.”

Pam List from Browntown said, “I got a letter about my storm door not closing property a couple of months. I got it fixed.I have not heard from them and that was a couple of months ago.They said to fix it in 2 weeks. I got another letter with a picture of someones elses back yard with bags of trash. I called and told them they had the wrong house. I got a phone call back from them saying they would come back and look at my backyard.”

Alex Goode from the Trinity neighborhood said, “Since moving in last August, i have received two fines. My 4 unit house that i also live in is elevated from the street with a stone wall next to the sidewalk. I had trash cans against that wall for a while but then received a fine for it so now bring them up the stairs. Guess ignorance of the law isn’t a legal defense but wish I had some kind of warning.”

Kristen Nicoletti moved to Wilmington from another state in 2015. She has received three tickets from the License & Inspections Department.

“I moved and I’ve had 3 tickets issued to me in this time. One was totally legitimate, I put my trash can out too soon and I paid around $50 for the ticket and that was that.”

She said the second ticket she got was a notice telling her that her house was unfit – “unfit for habitation” as she explained it. “It (ticket) was telling me that my house was “unfit for habitation” and the reason listed was that I did not have electricity.” I totally had electricity. I called the office and told them that something was not correct here and they told me to disregard the ticket. This was in 2017 and I have not heard anything since fortunately, although the fact that that happened at all worried me. Especially since no one could give me any paperwork to prove that I was told to disregard it.”

The third ticket came yesterday. It’s for $94.28 and the reason is “removal of trash, junk, debris – front. See add’l notes.” There are no additional notes. There is, however, a picture of the front of my house with my trash cans properly put away, and nothing else is in front of my house. There’s no explanation what so ever about what trash they mean. The ticket was from an inspection on 6/7 and I got the ticket on 6/29 so there’s no way for me to even be able to go look at the front.

Additionally, “there’s no info on here about how to pay it online. I’m not sure if that’s because there is no option, or they just neglected to put it on the letter, but I feel like expecting people to still have checks in 2018 or to just be able to take off work to go in and pay it is kind of silly. But that’s probably just me.” “I just think that there’s maybe a lack of attention to detail or supervision or something missing from the process.”

Editors Note: Although Kristen may have had a bad experience with the License & Inspections field inspector, she recently explained that her negative experiences turned into a more positive one. “All of my interactions were very pleasant, and I’m hoping to not have any more issues, but we will see.”

What to do if you want to dispute/appeal a ticket
If you feel that a ticket is in error, you can contact the city of Wilmington’s License and Inspections Department. According to the city of Wilmington’s License & Inspections website:

Appeal an Instant Ticket

The owner of a property aggrieved by any civil penalty imposed, pursuant to Chapters 3, 13, 24, 36, and 45 of the Wilmington City Code, may appeal to the Commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspections by sending a detailed written explanation of the grounds for the appeal. The written appeal must be mailed within 21 calendar days of the date of the citation along with a $15.00 administrative fee to:

Hearing Officer
Department of Licenses and Inspections
P.O. Box 2022
Wilmington, Delaware 19899

The written petition must set forth the following:

The principal points upon which the appeal is made and specific reference to the provisions if the applicable code section(s) upon which the appeal is based.

The Commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspections shall forward the payment of the civil penalty to the Department of Finance, which will credit such payment. Each citation received must be appealed separately. The Commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspections or a designee shall issue a written decision affirming, modifying, reversing, revoking or vacating the civil penalty within 45 calendar days of receipt of the written explanation of the grounds for appeal. Such decision shall be final.

If you want to pay a ticket online, you can visit here for more information

What to do if you want to file a complaint against your Code Inspector in Wilmington

If you feel that a ticket is in error, you can contact the city of Wilmington’s License and Inspections Department:

Contact Constituent Services
Departments:Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services
Email:cityhelp@WilmingtonDE.gov
Phone:(302) 576-2489

Mailing Address:

Louis L. Redding City/County Building
800 N. French Street, 3rdFloor
Wilmington, DE 19801

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