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Willmar proposes change in penalty for housing, exterior storage violations

WILLMAR -- Officials hope a proposed amendment to city ordinance will speed up the process for resolving violations of the housing maintenance and exterior storage code.

The proposed amendment would change the penalty for first-time violators from a misdemeanor to a petty misdemeanor. The amendment is an attempt to move these minor violations through the court system more efficiently, according to Bruce Peterson, director of city planning and development services.

Persons charged with a misdemeanor have the option of requesting a jury trial, which can be expensive and time-consuming. The courts have requested that the city reduce first-time exterior storage violations to a petty misdemeanor. Persons charged with a petty misdemeanor do not have the option of a jury trial. They may appear before a judge.

By not allowing a trial for petty misdemeanors, the violations can be resolved more quickly and at a lower cost, according to Peterson. Petty misdemeanors provide a faster process that won't tie up the court system and the judges can order violations cleaned up sooner.

City Planner Megan Sauer said many misdemeanor cases went through the courts after officials conducted a big sweep last year in the trailer parks for exterior storage violations.

"The courts don't like it and we don't like it either,'' said Sauer. "Our goal is to just have a clean neighborhood. We don't want to punish these people or make it a big process. The courts can move them through more quickly, pay the fine, order the cleanup and move on.''

Under Minnesota law, a petty misdemeanor is not actually a crime and often carries a fine of no more than $100 -- $300 is the maximum under the law. A person charged with a petty misdemeanor is not entitled to a jury trial or public defender and there is no jail time.

Under the current ordinance, a violator is charged with a misdemeanor and faces a penalty of up to $1,000 in fines and up to 90 days in jail. The defendant can request a jury trial and public defender.

The council's Community Development Committee recommended the amendment. The council at the April 4 meeting voted to introduce the ordinance and to hold a hearing to take comments from the public. The hearing will begin at 7:02 p.m. Monday in the chambers at the Municipal Utilities Building, 700 Litchfield Ave. S.W.

In other business, the council will receive comments from the public during the open forum and will receive the annual report from the Public Works Department.

The council will receive reports from the Finance Committee, Public Works/Safety Committee and Community Development Committee.

Also, the council will consider setting May 16 as the date for the 2011 street improvement assessment hearing; consider an improvement report for 19th Street Northwest from Gorton Avenue to the end of the cul-de-sac; and will consider placing a lien against property at 320 Fourth St. S.W. to collect unpaid utility charges.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150