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It's business as usual at Seventh Street and 19th Avenue Southeast, next to East Acres in Decatur. Shade-tree mechanics appear to be working on five vehicles, four of which are on jacks.
Daily photo by John Godbey
It's business as usual at Seventh Street and 19th Avenue Southeast, next to East Acres in Decatur. Shade-tree mechanics appear to be working on five vehicles, four of which are on jacks.

Cleaning up: Athens vs. Decatur
Residents look at crackdown in Athens, see something wrong in the River City

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

Athens Mayor Dan Williams said Athens may turn into Dodge City.

"You know Dodge City hired Wyatt Earp to clean up the town and then complained that the town got too clean," Williams said.

While some Athens residents have complained about the city's aggressive stance on clean community violations this week, the complainers are the ones who received citations.

Meanwhile, some Decatur residents also have complained. Not because Athens is cleaning up its city, but because they think Decatur isn't being as aggressive.

At a Decatur community meeting this week, one citizen asked why Decatur's code enforcement officers aren't going onto private property to issue citations when Athens doesn't seem to have a problem doing that.

Decatur Mayor Don Kyle commented that Athens is "doing what we've been doing all along."

Williams said Athens has been "doing it all along" as well. He said Athens has issued citations for years. The difference is this City Council wants more focus on clean community, Williams said.

That led to Athens police issuing a press release last week that stated officers will get out their citation books and no longer issue warnings for litter, weeds and junk vehicles.

Capt. Marty Bruce said that as of Friday morning, officers had issued 104 citations since Monday.

Williams said officers have found more than 200 violations but some may not have received their citations yet. On third-shift patrol, officers make a list of violators' addresses and then first- and second-shift patrols issue those citations.

"I'm glad we got the jump on Decatur," Williams said. "I'm good friends with Don, so I've got to poke back at him. Maybe I ought to ride across the bridge and look for Decatur's violations and report them to his office."

The two cities handle clean community problems differently.

Probable cause?

For one, the two entities have a different opinion about what constitutes probable cause.

Allen Stover with Decatur's Community Development said officers must be able to tell from public right of way whether a vehicle violates the city's ordinance. One way to determine that is whether the vehicle has a missing or expired license plate.

Decatur residents avoid citations by backing their vehicles to their homes to make it impossible for an officer to see whether it has a license plate. Stover said unlawful search and seizure issues come into play if an officer cannot tell and goes onto private property to inspect the vehicle.

"If we cite 1,000 people but it doesn't hold up in court, what have we accomplished?" Stover asked.

Athens has a more liberal view of probable cause.

Bruce said if Athens officers see vehicles that appear to be violations, they go onto the property and check for license plates and inspect the vehicles' operating condition.

"I can only speak for how our department handles it," Bruce said, "but if it looks like it won't run, we use that as probable cause to check it."

Ticket or court

Another difference between the two is what happens after officers issue citations.

In Athens, once a property owner receives a citation, he must pay a fine and court costs even if he cleans the property. The only way to avoid that is to fight the citation in court and win.

An owner has five days to clean his property and remove junk vehicles. If an owner refuses, he goes to court. The fine for junk vehicles is $30 plus $146 in court costs. The litter fine is a minimum of $200 plus court costs.

Capt. Tracy Harrison said those who clean their property in five days can call Athens police at 233-8700 and ask for an inspection. If the property is clean, an officer will sign off on it. Harrison said violators who clean their property can pay their fine and court cost "like paying a traffic ticket."

Stover said Decatur issues violators a citation to appear in court. The only exceptions to a mandatory court appearance in Decatur are parking tickets or traffic tickets that are paid in advance of the court date given.

If a judge finds the property owner guilty, the judge gives him a time frame to clean the property and sentences him to a fine. Decatur's municipal code states that anyone who commits an offense in the city can pay a fine not less than $1 and not more than $500 and serve up to six months.

"But there's another side to this," Stover said. "If we put them in jail, is that getting the mess cleaned up? We can cut weeds, but we can't go into someone's yard and remove their personal property."

Stover said he feels as good about Decatur's ordinance regarding junk vehicles as any other city's ordinance.

"I'm comfortable ours will hold up in court better than anybody's," Stover said.

Third difference

A third difference between the cities is that Athens uses its police to enforce clean community violations. Athens has two code enforcement officers, but any patrolman can cite a property owner.

This week, the department started allocating one officer per shift to assist code enforcement, but all patrolmen have been issuing citations.

Decatur police Chief Ken Collier said that in Decatur, the city's Community Development office handles clean community violations, although his officers do notify code enforcement of violations they see. Community Development has six code enforcement officers.

Collier: 'A good job'

"The code enforcement folks are doing what I think is a good job," Collier said.

Kyle reported that in 2006, Community Development issued more than 3,000 citations for weed, junk and litter violations.

In comparison, Athens responded to 411 clean community complaints last year and cited 39 people. Officers also mailed 50 letters to people seen throwing litter from their vehicles.

"We've just decided to address it more intensely," Williams said. "The fact that the citizens of Decatur see what's going on in Athens and want the same thing done in their town is indicative of the way most folks feel. You make a big investment in your home. Then when a home next to you gets into terrible shape, you're upset."

Keep Athens-Limestone Beautiful

While litter is a hot topic in Athens, Keep Athens-Limestone Beautiful wants to inspire citizens to clean up their community.

On April 14, KALB will sponsor a countywide cleanup as part of Keep America Beautiful's annual Great American Cleanup.

Trash bags, gloves, safety vests, and some litter grabbers will be available to volunteers who come out to Big Spring Memorial Park from 8:00 to 8:30 a.m.

Groups and individuals may select an area they wish to clean, or KALB will help them choose one.

To make the event more fun, Hardee's, McDonald's, and Starbucks will be provide complementary breakfast sandwiches, orange juice and coffee for volunteers.

"We can't clean up Athens and Limestone County by ourselves," said Lynn Hart, executive coordinator of KALB. "This must be a community effort, and we strongly urge individuals, civic groups, businesses and others to come out on this day and show their support."

Several organizations have joined the Adopt-a-Spot program, and these organizations are encouraged to join the cleanup effort.

Those who want to participate but are unable to pick up supplies at the park can pick them up in advance by calling 233-8728 or going online at kalb@pclnet.net.

- Holly Hollman

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