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    ‘Rocket’ water court more like a slow stream

    More than 200 people fighting drought citations did more waiting than pleading in Tampa's first attempt to speed up hearings.

    [Times photo: John Pendygraft]
    "It's ridiculous," Jeff Camera said of the wait to hear water violation cases Monday. Another "Rocket Docket" session is set for April 30.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2001


    TAMPA -- Here's how it went on the first night of "Rocket Docket," Tampa's plan to speed up the massive backlog of drought-related citations:

    Nearly two hours after court began, the magistrate was still hearing cases of people whose last name begins with the letter A.

    The more than 200 people cramming the benches and aisles were restless and grumbling.

    Many of those protesting their cases arrived with attorneys, many of whom, in turn, began grilling the water inspectors.

    Opening night of "Rocket Docket" quickly degenerated into a dead crawl.

    "It's numbing," said Kevin Jackson, 45, listening as accused water violators tried to beat their fines with explanations ranging from leaky sprinklers to malfunctioning timers.

    With a long wait ahead, Jackson started quietly reading the sports page. An eagle-eyed bailiff told him to put it away: courtroom decorum. That did not help Jackson's mood.

    "What are you supposed to do, pay attention while all the people tell their stories?" Jackson said. "It's almost like I'm in class. Next they'll ask me to slap the erasers."

    Jackson, who already had waited two hours to protest a $42 lawn-watering fine, began to wonder whether the wait was meant to encourage people to simply pay.

    The city originally scheduled more than 700 water cases to be heard Monday, but hundreds opted to pay their fines rather than face water court.

    Bailiffs estimated about 200 people were left on the list Monday night.

    The "Rocket Docket" session was meant to clear out cases that otherwise would not have been heard until early next year.

    In response to the ongoing drought, the city has ratcheted up the aggressiveness of its water patrol.

    On the prowl day and night, water inspectors last week issued 168 citations, compared to the 50 per month of previous years. It also raised fines from $35 to $100 for a first violation, and from $35 to $200 for a second violation.

    In addition to representing a neighbor for free, William Chastain, a civil litigation attorney, came to court Monday night to represent himself, hammering the water inspector with questions:

    How many citations did you issue on the night in question? How do you know you had the right house?

    Chastain's results were mixed. His neighbor got stuck with a fine. But Chastain persuaded the magistrate to waive his fine after arguing that the inspector who cited him in January for watering on a restricted day was confused about which house was his.

    "Sometimes there's a matter of principle," Chastain told the Times, saying the citation was lacking important details such as the location of the sprinklers in question. "He didn't have anything except that citation. If we were over in traffic court, there would be a better standard of proof than we had over here.

    "It's a bit unfair for a person that doesn't have an attorney," he added.

    Accused violators who had lawyers got to go first.

    And not everyone was happy about it.

    Lenn Solheim, 22, said he faced up to $500 in fines because of a bad timer on his sprinklers.

    "I think it's stupid that all the lawyers get to go first," Solheim said. "I don't have a lawyer, and this is $200-$500."

    The regular water citation hearings take place on the first Tuesday of every month. The next "Rocket Docket" session will be April 30.

    - Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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