America the Messy Yard Police State
Mesa judge Clayton Hamblen a big time messy yard criminal?Mesa judge Clayton Hamblen a big time messy yard criminal? I guess it's the usual "Do as I say, not as I do" line from the government nannies!
Mesa justice of the peace has record of code-compliance issues
by Gary Nelson - Aug. 3, 2010 02:42 PM
The Arizona Republic
Property owned by a Mesa justice of the peace has been the target of seven code-compliance cases since 2003, including one that led to a misdemeanor criminal conviction.
Clayton Hamblen, who presides over the West Mesa Justice Court, said several factors played a part in the cases, including overly fastidious neighbors, a rigid code-compliance officer and a long recovery from cancer surgery during the longest-running case.
Most of the cases were closed in short order after Hamblen fixed the problems.
Two, however, remained open for a combined 38 months, leading to at least 17 civil citations and a criminal trial in which Hamblen was convicted of being a habitual offender. In those two cases, Mesa assessed a total $2,360 in penalties.
Hamblen is running for re-election this year to the $101,500-a-year post. He accused his opponent, former lawmaker Mark Anderson, of exposing the code cases as a campaign ploy.
Anderson denied that. "This is the first I've heard of it," Anderson said when contacted by the Mesa Republic. "I don't believe in negative campaigning. I've never done it, and I'm not going to start now."
The Republic began investigating the matter last month after Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh mentioned it in a discussion about possible changes to Mesa's nuisance and property-maintenance code.
Kavanaugh said he wants tougher rules on the number of inoperable vehicles that can be stored on a property and noted Hamblen's west-side home as an example.
The vehicles in Hamblen's backyard are mentioned repeatedly in code-compliance files beginning in September 2004, when the longest-running case was opened.
An inspector's note from Sept. 20, 2004, said, "Rear yard is full of cars, looks like he is running a salvage yard."
The problem wasn't the cars themselves. It was that they were visible from the public right-of-way, which is a code violation. Hamblen was told repeatedly to fix the fence that was supposed to shield the cars from view, and the last time code officers checked, in April of this year, they said the fence was adequate.
To Hamblen, however, the cars are not junk.
Three are family heirlooms, he said. One belonged to his father, another to his mother, and one is the second car Hamblen ever owned, a 1937 Ford.
The others are race cars that Hamblen and family members use. "We have a few race cars, and they do live in the backyard, most of them," Hamblen said.
"My backyard is totally enclosed," he said. "I don't see how those are anybody's consideration other than mine."
Code-compliance files also indicate frequent problems with outdoor storage, inoperable vehicles in the front driveway, weeds and trash on the property.
Hamblen said many of the complaints came from people who don't like the general character of the neighborhood, which features large lots and horse properties.
"They take exception to the horses, they take exception to the tractors, they take exception to anything that people in my neighborhood have," Hamblen said.
Hamblen said most of Mesa's code staff have been reasonable but "they had one person that was just a tad bit off the edge" and hard to work with.
Hamblen blamed many of the problems on a storm several years ago "that tore everything in the back of my house apart."
At the same time, he said, he was fighting cancer.
When the city demanded repairs, he said, "I didn't get it done as quickly as I should have."
City records indicate Hamblen's family members informed code staff of his cancer surgery in May 2006.
That, however, was more than a year and a half into the code case that began in September 2004 with a complaint about outdoor storage of furniture and plywood, tall grass and weeds, and vehicles in the driveway with expired tags. And it was seven months after Hamblen had been declared a repeat offender during proceedings in that case.
It took more than 40 inspections and at least four civil citations before the property was brought into compliance and the case closed in August 2006. For all that trouble, Mesa collected $120 in fees from Hamblen.
In August 2007, Mesa opened another case and toughened its approach.
Code-compliance director Tammy Albright said that case generated 13 civil citations. At a civil hearing, Hamblen was found responsible for nine violations and not responsible for two. He did not respond to two others and was found "responsible by default."
"Once Mr. Hamblen was found responsible either in a hearing or by default for three or more citations within a 24-month period, he was considered a habitual offender by ordinance," Albright said.
Mesa filed three misdemeanor habitual-offender charges against Hamblen in 2008. In October 2008, he was acquitted on two of them but convicted on a charge of habitual improper storage of a watercraft or utility trailer.
No fine imposed
Mesa Municipal Court Judge Karl Eppich gave Hamblen a suspended sentence and imposed no fine despite a provision in the city code that says no sentence can be suspended unless the convicted person pays a fine of at least $500 on each count.
Through a court spokesman, Eppich issued this statement to the Mesa Republic:
"The failure to impose the minimum fine in this case was simply an oversight on my part. As compared to the types of charges we deal with, we don't handle a large number of violations of the ordinance in question. I certainly would have corrected the error had it been brought to my attention by the parties."
Even though he wasn't fined, Hamblen filed a notice of appeal with the county courts. That appeal was dropped when Hamblen failed to pay the required fees, and Eppich's original sentence was reimposed in February 2009.
The 2007 case did cost Hamblen $2,240 in civil penalties and fees, however.
Few habitual offenders
Hamblen, 64, is a lawyer and was first elected as justice of the peace after a rancorous campaign in 1990. His court handles an array of cases including traffic offenses and other misdemeanors, lawsuits for less than $10,000, evictions and other civil matters.
Albright said it is unusual for a code-compliance case to last as long as two of Hamblen's have.
"We do have people who are habitual offenders," she said. "I don't think it's a high percentage of our cases. We get 70 to 80 percent voluntary compliance and never see them again."
Kavanaugh, who represents Hamblen's neighborhood, said he first became aware of Hamblen's record through a constituent complaint several months ago.
"When we checked on the address, we were advised from code compliance that they had a long history with him," Kavanaugh said. "I thought it was unusual that a person who is a justice of the peace had seemingly so little regard for the Mesa city code or for his neighbors. I still have that opinion."
Hamblen said he has tried to live by the city's rules.
"I don't care what it is: If there's a problem, you let me know and I'll take care of it," he said. "Frankly, I'm the guy you would want to have for your neighbor. I will do anything for anybody any time."