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Many water citations don't stick

Of the people who came to hearings to challenge their watering citations, one in three left without paying fines.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


TAMPA -- To enforce drought-related water codes, the city has been relying on fleets of water cops to patrol day and night for illicitly running sprinklers and carelessly leaking hoses. They've cited more than 5,000 people this year, vastly more than in previous years.

But for people who bothered fighting their citations at two recent hearings meant to clear a backlog of water cases, one person in three beat the system.

Of the 740 water cases scheduled for an April 2 hearing, 291 of them were dismissed through a judge's ruling or the city's recommendation, while only 210 were found in violation. Many others just paid when they got there.

The city was more successful at an April 30 hearing where, of the 484 scheduled cases, 204 were found in violation, while 134 were dismissed.

Why did so many accused water scofflaws get off the hook? In many cases, said Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez, people claimed they did not receive proper notice of the violations, and there were technical problems on the citations themselves.

In some cases, people showed up in court with lawyers to challenge their citations. A few claimed water enforcers mistook one address for another. Alvarez, who held a news conference Thursday to announce the docket results, said water enforcers would be given better training.

"They're going to be able to prove their cases a lot better than before," Alvarez said. "We're going to educate the water cops." He suggested they take along Polaroid cameras.

The first special court session to accelerate the cases, dubbed the "Rocket Docket," drew grumbles from those who attended because it crept along with agonizing slowness, with lawyers getting to go first. Alvarez said an additional judge will be added, when needed, to remedy the problem.

If needed, Alvarez said, two special court sessions will be held per month, though the next has not yet been scheduled.

India Williams, consumer affairs manager of the Tampa Water Department, said the number of cases that reach the court docket represent only a portion of the total citations issued. Many people simply pay the fine before it gets to court.

"I'm not sure (dismissed cases are) as big a problem as the numbers released today would indicate at first blush," Williams said.

The courts dismissed some of the cases, Williams said, because the city, equipped with inaccurate addresses, had been unable to notify accused violators of the citations against them.

The city, she added, will try to figure out why the courts tossed the others and how to keep it from happening. "That would be something we need to figure out," Williams said. "We will do anything we need to do to make sure these cases stand up in court."

Among those cited are The Times Building at 1000 N Ashley Drive, the building in which the St. Petersburg Times leases space for its Tampa operations. The building has been cited four times since May 2000. One of those citations has been dismissed.

Todd Livingston, the building's chief engineer, attributed the problem to a private landscaping company that had been in charge of programming the building's sprinklers. The landscaper, he said, has been replaced.

- Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337.

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