Patricia “Nemi” Trent thought she’d covered her bases. Last year, this well-preserved West Baltimore senior citizen received a citation from the city for a bag of trash found without a trash can several blocks from her house; a piece of paper with her name on it was inside. At a hearing before the Environmental Control Board (ECB), the regulatory agency that adjudicates civil citations, Trent explained that her garbage can had been wheeled off by thieves, who must have dumped her trash en route. The presiding administrative judge lowered her fine and advised her to purchase a paper shredder, she says. “I took her suggestion,” she says. “If anything comes to me in my mail slot, I make sure my name is nowhere on it.”
In January of this year, enforcement officers reported finding a piece of mail addressed to Trent in a city-owned vacant lot around the corner from her house. The lot also contained a mattress, a sink, and a large pile of overflowing trash bags. Trent received two citations, one for the voluminous pile of trash ($50) and the other for the fact that it was found on a non-trash day ($50). The evidence that the trash was hers consists of two photographs of the garbage and one closeup of a piece of mass mail addressed to “Patricia Trent or Current Resident.” (These are posted on the Baltimore Housing Department web site.) There are no wide shots that include both the envelope and the trash. “I never received that piece of mail,” Trent says. “And I’m a senior citizen. How am I gonna carry a mattress and a sink?”
Trent requested a hearing once more. She brought a pro bono lawyer from Legal Services for the Elderly and a letter of support from the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, where she volunteers. She hoped that evidence of good character—the grant for 100 free recycling bins she helped her community obtain last year, partly by using photos of the very same trash-strewn lot; the tree-planting she’d initiated; the certificates and letters of commendation for community service she’d received from city officials over the years, going back to Mayor Kurt Schmoke—would help. But the administrative judge upheld the citations. To appeal would cost $50, plus the cost of transcripts from her hearing ($3 per page). “I’m livid,” she says. “I didn’t do it. Quite frankly, it seems like they’re more interested in fining somebody than they are in getting the right person.”
Many people seem to be livid at the Environmental Control Board lately. At least three lawsuits involving the board are currently pending in Circuit Court, and Baltimore Inspector General David McClintock says complaints have reached his office. (“I have seen some inquiries and we are in the process of assessing what the best course of action is for that,” he says.) Meanwhile, a bevy of local bloggers are busy sniffing for corruption. Gadfly Adam Meister has pointed out on his Charm City Current blog that ECB Administrative Judge Gary Brooks lives next door to former mayor Sheila Dixon, and the anonymous, now defunct Baltimore Government Watch revealed that Administrative Judge Patricia Welch is married to Martin Welch, chief judge of the Baltimore City Circuit Court, which hears ECB appeals. (ECB Executive Director Sandra Baker says Martin Welch has never been assigned an administrative review from ECB. “And we’d be the first to say that that would be unethical,” she adds.) Baltileaks, a site modeled after WikiLeaks, has released several public documents related to the ECB, including financial disclosure statements by members of the board and administrative judges’ contracts.
Residents and landlords have complained to City Paper, as well. About 10 people who communicated with a reporter had wide-ranging complaints about the ECB. They included objections to what the board considers evidence of a violation—generally a photograph or two, as in Trent’s case, and the testimony of an enforcement officer—and complaints that notices of a right to a hearing were never received, that rulings on appeals were not forthcoming, that the cost of those appeals was prohibitively expensive, and that the ECB lacks oversight.
One man, who wished to remain anonymous because he fears retribution from the city, received citations two years ago for trash stuck in the hedges around his house. Ever since his hearing—which he describes as “Soviet Gulag-style”—he’s been filing Maryland Public Information Act requests, reviewing state and federal regulations, and digging into court filings in an effort to discredit the agency. “My experience has been that it’s basically a rubberstamp,” he says.
No one has provided clear proof that the Environmental Control Board is corrupt. But judging by the frustrations it tends to evoke in those subject to its rulings, this city agency has a long way to go to achieve transparency and the trust of citizens. While supporters—some public officials, for instance—believe the ECB is simultaneously cleaning up the city and filling its coffers, opponents see the agency as an inflexible, Kafkaesque bureaucracy that exists solely to rake in revenue. Corrupt or not, there appears to be little solid evidence that the ECB has succeeded in cleaning up the city during its more than decade-long tenure. Meanwhile, it’s not making any friends.
The hearing rooms at the quasi-judicial Environmental Control Board in downtown Baltimore have all the majesty of office cubicles. After receiving a citation in the mail, those who request a hearing are ushered to a desk under drop ceilings and fluorescent lights, facing one of two administrative judges, who wear no robes. In one corner of the room, an office assistant mans a tape recorder and in some cases a projector, which is used to display photographs, or “exhibits,” during the hearing. The hearings are theoretically open to the public, but the arrival of a reporter who didn’t identify herself as such caused some consternation.
“Who are you? Where are you from?” Administrative Judge Gary Brooks asked when I sat down in his chambers.
“I’m here to observe the hearings,” I said. “I understood they were open to the public.”
Brooks: “That’s not my question. Where are you from?”
That day’s hearings ran the gamut, covering everything from citations for trash cans without lids to uncut grass to selling tobacco to a minor to owning unvaccinated, unlicensed house cats. In the latter case, the respondent was a woman named Patricia Gregory. “I didn’t know you had to have a permit,” she said, after identifying a gray cat in a photograph shot through a window as her own. Brooks lowered the fines for her two citations, bringing the total from $700 down to $250. “Is there any way I can pay over time?” Gregory asked. “I’m on Social Security. It’s hard.” (The ECB does not accept payment plans, but does on occasion grant extensions.)
The Environmental Control Board was not created to bring in revenue, according to City Councilmember Robert Curran (D-3rd District), who sits on the board. Formed by ordinance in 1998, it was modeled on a similar New York City body, meant to relieve overburdened criminal courts, where “nuisance” crimes related to trash, pets, and other minor offenses tended to sit unresolved. “[The ECB] was basically set up to be revenue-neutral in the sense that what they had hoped the board would accomplish is that it would change attitudes of people,” Curran says. In fact, some public officials at the time, including Councilmember “Rochelle” Rikki Spector (D-5th District), worried publicly that financing the board would hurt the city budget.
Richard Krummerich, the first ECB executive director, told the Council at the time that officers would have to generate about 72,000 tickets a year to pay for the board’s upkeep. More than a decade later, the ECB has done a good deal better than break even. In 2010, 78,192 citations were issued, of which only a little over 2,000 were dismissed. (The number of citations issued have climbed fairly steadily since the ECB was established. In 2003, the earliest year for which statistics are available, 35,852 citations were given out.) The board is projected to pull in $6 million for fiscal year 2011, at a cost to the city of about $600,000.
So it’s no surprise that some residents see the ECB as little more than a cash cow. Steve Sachs, a landlord with 24 commercial and residential properties in the city who is suing the ECB in Circuit Court, is one of them. “It’s clearly a department set up to collect revenue for the city and they don’t care how they do it,” he says. “They don’t even care about your constitutional rights.” Sachs says he’s received 20 or 30 citations totaling $10,000 over the last three years, and only received notice of his right to a hearing on a few of them. He claims that he takes good care of his properties and that enforcement officers have repeatedly failed to prove that he or his tenants were the ones to blame for violations. “The problem is with the ECB, everything is based on hearsay,” he says. “That’s why they use an administrative court, because in a real court of law it would be thrown out.” (City regulations governing the board state that, in general, “formal rules of evidence and trial procedures do not apply.”) Sachs’ trial is set for May 4, but he says the city has indicated it may offer him a settlement before that. “It looks like they don’t want to go to court,” he says.
Just last week, a landlord named Thomas Perrone filed another case in Circuit Court against the ECB (as well as its Executive Director Sandra Baker, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council, Baltimore Housing Code Enforcement, and Housing Authority Commissioner Paul Graziano). The complaint deals with “numerous environmental citations” concerning a rental property Perrone owns in Bolton Hill. It alleges that the infractions cited—including overflowing trash and not having the correct number of trash cans—were actually the fault of a neighbor, and that Perrone repeatedly informed enforcement officers as well as the ECB of this, to no avail. The suit contends that citations were issued maliciously, that Perrone was repeatedly denied the right to an appeal, and that the response to Maryland Public Information Act requests was inadequate and incomplete, among other charges. Perrone is seeking a refund for the citations paid and nearly $350,000 in punitive damages. “This suit is just the tip of the iceberg,” he wrote via e-mail, “to begin legal discovery against the fiscally predatory, malicious and wrongful practices of the Environmental Control Board, aka the ‘Trash Police.’”
The ECB might more accurately be called the Trash Court, as the body itself does not issue citations, though it does establish the form and wording of those citations and train code-enforcement officers to issue them. City agencies, including the departments of Health, Fire, Police, and Housing, are the ticketers. Of these, the Housing Department—which, in 2007, took over the issuance of sanitation citations from the Department of Public Works—gives out the largest number of citations by far. Last year, Housing issued more than 58,000 citations. That is nearly double the number it issued in 2008. Asked the reason for this increase, Housing Department spokesperson Cheron Porter wrote via e-mail: “We have significantly increased our focus on sanitation enforcement.”
The ECB’s Sandra Baker attributes the general rise in citations over the years to several factors. She says that when the sanitation division was transferred to the Housing Department, citations skyrocketed. “Before that, housing inspectors weren’t writing many citations,” she says. “But there was a transfer of the guard from one agency to another.” With the consolidation, the department put renewed efforts into ticketing. “It was more effective because then they would be in a code-enforcement atmosphere,” says Department of Public Works spokesperson Robert Murrow. “Before, if you had a sanitation guy, he only looked at sanitation violations. Now code-enforcement officers look for any violation.”
With the rise in citations, Sandra Baker says her staff is stretched to the breaking point. “The number of people asking for hearings has increased,” she says. “And we have not increased our staff here at ECB.” Last year, 11,312 hearings were held. The contracts of the board’s two administrative judges prohibit them from working more than 32 hours a week, which means each of those hearings lasted an average of about 15 minutes, assuming no time for paperwork and other duties. Baker says she is currently interviewing for a third administrative judge, but one more person is not likely to solve the problem. A 2009 Baltimore Sun article described a citation backlog so severe that notices for unpaid penalties—including the tripling of fines—were being sent out automatically before people requesting a hearing had even heard back about their hearing date. At that time, according to the article, hearings were being scheduled within six to eight weeks. The backlog has not improved in the intervening years. According to Baker, last year it took 120 days on average for residents to have their appeal heard. She says the average is now down to 60 days, but on the day in early March when a CP reporter visited, several of the hearings concerned citations issued in September. (By city code, the ECB has 180 days from the day a citation is served to hold a hearing.)
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is presumably aware of the problem; her March 2010 Transition Team Report noted that the ECB was “significantly understaffed.” It goes on: “We believe the ECB can be a major revenue generator for the City and that the investment of more staff will more then [sic] pay for itself.” The report also expressed concern about vacancies on the board itself. The board’s primary function is to rule on appeals, in the event that a citizen fails to convince a judge to overturn a citation during his or her hearing and wishes to continue fighting the citation. (According to Baker, the board ruled on just 13 appeals last year; one case was overturned.) The board is supposed to comprise 13 members: a representative from each of five city agencies, a City Council member, and seven members appointed by the mayor, two of whom must be members of the general public.
But of the four mayoral designees listed as board members on the ECB web site, one appears to have moved to Florida (Patrick Moylan), a second said in a phone call that she hadn’t been to an ECB meeting for a year (Ede Taylor), and a third said he hadn’t served on the board for some five years (Daniel Motz). Upon request, Baker provided a list of the members who are not city officials: three current (Hahns Spratt Hairston, Michael Zwaig, and Ronald Curry) and three “non active” (Patrick Moylan, Derrick Southard, and Ede Taylor). Thus it appears that the board currently has only nine true members, rather than 13, the majority of them from the very agencies that issue citations. E-mails and phone calls to the mayor’s office inquiring about the vacancies were not returned.
Despite these problems at the ECB, the cost of dealing with the agency if you are cited is on the rise. The city Board of Estimates recently approved imposing a $15 court fee on anyone requesting a hearing. As of last month, submitting a written appeal—the next step after a hearing for those who wish to continue to fight their case—cost $50 plus the cost of a transcript of the hearing. (Transcripts cost anywhere from $90 to $400, according to Baker. An appeal previously cost $37, with no transcript charge.) None of these fees are refundable.
And with the city in a budget crunch, bills that involve civil citations adjudicated through the ECB have been cropping up more frequently in City Council. Last summer, the Council voted to increase fines for public drunkenness and public urination, and this February it passed a neighborhood nuisance bill governing those acting in a “disorderly manner that disturbs the public peace,” as well as landlords allowing such behavior to occur on their property (“Keeping it Down,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 9, 2011). Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) also introduced a bill early this month that would increase the fines for illegal dumping. (In the case of larger pieces of trash, the fine would go from $250 to $1,000.)
Councilmember Robert Curran says such citations help to change attitudes and make the city more livable. “[The ECB] performs a very good duty for the city,” he says. “We need to have that agency running on all cylinders.” Though Curran says he’s intervened on behalf of a few of his own constituents with citation problems in the past, he has harsh words for critics of the Environmental Control Board: “Who are these gripes coming from? Is it the great aunt down the street that’s 80 years old who couldn’t get out to cut the lawn, or is it somebody who owns 20 or 30 houses and just don’t give a rat’s ass?”