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A Fine Mess

Attorney Donald Kahn had spent a lifetime preparing for this moment. University of Miami law school. Advanced degrees in taxation and real estate. Ascension to partner at the slightly stuffy firm of Green, Kahn, Piotrkowski in Miami Beach.

On November 10 the lawyer shined his wingtips, donned a blue Austin Burke suit and pointed his Lincoln Town Car north toward Dania Beach. Arriving there he spent six hours waiting to address the five members of the city commission. At 1 a.m. Kahn was finally allowed to speak and didn't mince words.

"If I was going to put it in very basic terms," he said, "I would say my client is an idiot. He admits he's an idiot. But we're simply saying $34,500 is an unreasonable fine in this situation."

The idiot in question, Timothy Williams, looked on in silence. During the summer of 1996, the 34-year-old handyman built a six-foot-high wooden fence around a duplex he owns in the 200 block of SW 14th Street. "There's a swimming pool on the property," Williams explains. "From time to time I've seen kids standing around the pool, and I was scared to death one of 'em would drown." Also, he notes, "I had drug dealers running across the property, and police cars would actually come driving up in the yard. It was crazy."

According to Williams the fence was in line with the South Florida building code -- posts every four feet, rot-resistant planks. But Williams neglected to get a $300 construction permit, which in turn required a $300 property survey.

In October 1996 code-enforcement officers in Dania Beach cited him for the oversight. For the next two years, Williams failed to address the matter despite several warnings and notices, and a $50-per-day fine finally became a $34,500 lien on his house. In desperation Williams turned to Kahn, whom he knew from doing maintenance work at the lawyer's office building. Kahn agreed to take the case for free, in part because the problem looked deceptively easy to solve.

It wasn't. Kahn appealed for mercy, saying his client wasn't actually so much an idiot as chronically pinched for cash -- hence the neglected permit. ("I put it kind of on the back burner," Williams says today. "I never thought it would get so serious.") For 40 minutes in the wee hours of November 11, Kahn wheedled, pleaded, cajoled, and finally threatened to sue the pants off the city administration, all to no avail. Commissioners voted 3-2 to uphold the lien.

Williams may have the record for whopper fines, but he's only the most recent in a string of Dania Beach citizens who have run afoul of the city's new enthusiasm for code enforcement. On October 13, Broward's oldest municipality demanded $5000 from a businessman for failing to trim trees on his residential property in the 2900 block of SW 45th Street. The same day commissioners refused to forgive fines totaling $10,400 against an immigrant couple. Their crime: overgrown hedges in their yard in the 200 block of SW Fourth Street.

The hard-line code-enforcement policy has divided the commission and unearthed old political fault-lines in the city of low-rise bungalows, weedy lots, and slightly shabby shops.

Mayor Jim Cali, elected in March 1997, also works as an auditor for the Broward Sheriff's Office. He says he was inspired by similar endeavors in Hallandale and Hollywood to pay more attention to outstanding code-enforcement fines, some of which have been on the books for more than a decade. This summer a budget advisory committee pointed out that the fines total approximately $11 million in a city where the annual budget is only $17 million.

"As a CPA, the financial position of the city was of paramount interest to me," Cali says. "One of the things that I noticed was that there was an outstanding balance of unpaid code-enforcement fines, and there was no aggressive collection. They've been ignored for ever and ever."

The city added an extra code officer, plus a part-time administrative assistant who helps with code-enforcement paperwork, and set about going after scofflaws. Until two months ago, the authority to reduce or forgive code-enforcement fines rested with the city's seven-member code-enforcement board, which traditionally displayed a soft heart. Now that authority has been transferred to the city commission.

"I'm not sure what the collectibility of that money is," Cali adds. "But the money isn't the issue. The $11 million is evidence of a major code problem in the city. If we only collect $800,000 and we're able to get everybody to comply and write off the balance and turn the city around in appearance, then that's a good thing." Three weeks after voting to uphold Williams' $34,500 fence fine, Cali says he's comfortable with the decision. "This is the will of the people," he says, citing homeowners groups that for years have complained about lax code enforcement.

Bob Mikes, a former three-term mayor, voted with fellow commissioner Bill Hyde to abate Williams' fine. He accuses Cali of ushering in an era of heartless bean-counting and claims Cali has done so out of desperation. The city's million-dollar budget deficit is the result of recent pricey expenditures supported by Cali, including a new contract with the sheriff's office and a new fire station, Mikes contends.

Amid much gavel-banging by Cali, Mikes addressed Williams and others who have suffered stiff fines. "You people happen to be the first guinea pigs for this new attempt by this new commission to raise money," he snorted on November 11. "It makes no more sense to do this than it does to take a parking ticket and make it $34,000 after two years. What you've got here is some commissioners, mainly this mayor, who needs money for this city because of other things he's done, and you're going to have to suffer for it."

Mikes also accused Cali and his colleagues of indiscriminate application of the code laws, a charge they deny. And he pointed out that Williams had torn the fence down several days before throwing himself on the mercy of the commission.

"This is ridiculous!" Mikes intoned. "$34,000 for a fence? The intent of code enforcement is to achieve compliance, to resolve the problem, not to be one inch short of the death penalty. Maybe that's next. Maybe we can amend the code, and if they don't pay, we can impose the death penalty."

Hyde, the commissioner who voted with Mikes to soften the fine, says he's still in favor of strict enforcement but couldn't go through with it in Williams' case. Like Mikes he's worried that the fines have become a tempting new source of revenue for a cash-strapped city. "It was gut-wrenching," he said later. "This gentleman got due process. Maybe he was being defiant. But sometimes you gotta make the punishment fit the crime, and this one was just so far over reality I couldn't do it."

Late last week Mikes sent a letter on city stationery apologizing to Williams for the outcome of the vote. He called the $34,500 fence fine "more appropriate for true criminal activity such as drug dealing, robbery, etc." and claimed Williams has been "caught up in a municipal system that can be highly arbitrary and unfair." Meanwhile, Kahn the lawyer says he's filing a lawsuit against Dania Beach in state court as early as this week, seeking to overturn or reduce the fine.

Williams says he's now unable to sell a second property he owns because of the lien on his duplex and therefore faces foreclosure. "I'm gonna be thrown in the street," he says. "I'm gonna lose everything I ever had, everything I worked for, and it's all because of a stupid fence. I don't feel like this is any form of justice at all.

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Sean Rowe

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