City defends actions in lawsuit

City Manager Jennifer Bramley discusses the city’s actions in a code enforcement case that has drawn national attention.

DUNEDIN — City officials are frustrated over some “one-sided” media reports stemming from foreclosure action taken against a property owner who has accrued almost $30,000 in unpaid code-enforcement fines.

At a City Commission work session May 14, City Manager Jennifer Bramley explained at length the series of events that led to foreclosure procedures after property owner Jim Ficken was fined for unmowed grass, which grew more than 10 inches in length.

“Twelve times since 2007 the city has had to intervene to get the property owner to maintain his property,” Bramley said.

Ficken has filed suit in state district court, alleging the fines are “excessive” and unconstitutional and that he did not receive due process before foreclosure actions were begun. The Washington Post and national television stations have covered the controversy.

Bramley addressed the claim that the city was putting a senior citizen on the street, saying the property, located at 1341 Lake Marion Lane, is not Fickens’ primary homesteaded residence.

“This property has a long history of code violations which resulted in the fines imposed,” Bramley said. “This issue is about compliance. This is about requiring a property owner maintain his property without prompting and without expenditure of city funds,” she said.

It was not until 2015 that code enforcement staff recommended repeat offender status in their case after receiving numerous complaints from the neighborhood regarding the property, she said.

In July of 2018, the city received a complaint that the lawn at 1341 Lake Marion Lane was again overgrown.

The code enforcement inspector contacted Ficken on behalf of Suncoast First Trust about the property shortly after June 5, 2018, and informed him that his grass needed to be cut because it could cost him up to $500 a day as a repeat offender, Bramley said.

Ficken said in July 2018 that his lawnmower was broken and he would get the lawn mowed by some means after it was repaired, she said. After giving Fickens five weeks to get the mower repaired or the lawn mowed by some other means, the code enforcement officer mailed a repeat violation notice on Aug. 22, 2018.

This case was brought to the Sept. 4, 2018, Dunedin Code Enforcement Board hearing, which resulted in two separate board orders that total $23,500 plus interest plus recording costs, Bramley said.

On March 5, 2019, Ficken, speaking on behalf on Suncoast First Trust, asked for an additional 60 days before the city proceeds with the foreclosure or any other procedure to seek payment against the trust, Bramley said.

On March 6, City Attorney Tom Trask asked Ficken why he was requesting additional time. Ficken did not reply to that email or an email after that, she said.

On May 7, the city of Dunedin Code Enforcement Board authorized the city attorney’s office to file foreclosure actions.

The plaintiff’s suit alleges Dunedin “imposes exorbitant fines on its citizens, often without any notice at all, for picayune code violations like having tall grass.”

But city officials counter that the factors for determining the amount of fines are specified in state law.

Commissioner Moe Freaney said residents get frustrated at how long it takes to bring properties into compliance.

“When things don’t repeatedly work, there’s a process. And this gentleman had every opportunity,” she said. “This is an investment property; this is not his home. So again, if you are the neighbor sitting next door to an investment property, and you are having this frustration, it makes it even more aggravating,”

Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski called a national network’s coverage of the issue “one-sided.”

“The city of Dunedin would never in a short-term period try to take somebody’s house for not mowing your grass once,” Bujalski said. “What benefit to us would that be?”

City ordinances and state law wouldn’t allow that, she said.

She said her family has received threats at home over the controversy, and sheriff’s officers were patrolling her neighborhood.

Trask thanked Bramley, the mayor and commissioners for their support as the legal staff moves forward in responding to the lawsuit.

“We’ve got a good case and it’s going to take a little bit of time. I think it’s going to make good law here in the state of Florida,” Trask said.

Named as defendants in the suit are the city of Dunedin, its code enforcement board, and individual members of the board: chairman Lowell Suplicki, vice-chair Arlene Graham, and members Ken Carson, William Motley, Dave Pauley and Bunny Dutton.

Plaintiffs are Ficken, who is named as trustee, and Suncoast First Trust, which owns the property. They are represented by attorneys with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian public interest law firm.

“The penalty of losing one’s home in foreclosure is disproportionate to the offence of having tall grass,” the filing claims.