City Hall recordsNot even your death will keep the
government of Coachella, California, from trying to nickel-and-dime
you out of every last cent. Just ask the family of Marjorie Sansom,
who died in 2016 at age 91.
city levied thousands of dollars in fines on the woman due to code
violations on a lot she abandoned. It tried to collect them by mailing
bills to an empty house where she hadn't lived for years. Samson,
meanwhile, was suffering from dementia and being cared for by her
family, which says it never received any of those mailings.
the city is demanding that the family cough up $39,000 to cover the
back fines and to pay for the cleanup for the empty lot. That's more
than the value of the property itself.
still, officials are being dismissive of evidence that the city knew
its complaints were not reaching the woman or her family. The
government just wants its money.
whole outrageous story was carefully investigated
and reported by Brett Kelman of the Palm
Sun. It's a follow-up to a heavily researched piece he
published in November, which documented how Coachella and a private
legal firm the city had contracted with were abusing
code enforcement regulations to extract huge sums from property
owners. The city would cite property owners for typical code
violations, like having damaged property or for unapproved home
upgrades. Months later, the property owners would get massive bills
from the legal firm, charging them for the cost of prosecuting them in
the first place.
law firm, Silver & Wright, is in the thick of the Sansom case. It
sent the woman invoices (still mailed to the wrong address) demanding
thousands of dollars in fines, court fees (even though there were no
court hearings), prosecution fees (nobody was prosecuted), and
reimbursement to the city for the time spent cleaning up the lot.
Kelman's story, neither the city nor the law firm shows any signs of
worry that they've gone too far. Despite threatening this family with
liens of thousands of dollars for fines they didn't even know existed,
the city and the firm insist they're doing everything above the board:
asked to comment on the Sansom's property this month, Coachella
officials and a city attorney said that they were unaware of the
owner's advanced age, mental state, true address or death at any
point during the nuisance property case, but still stood by the
actions taken by the city. Luis Lopez, Coachella's development
services director, said the city presumed the citations and legal
notices it had mailed to Sansom were received—even though they were
notified twice by the U.S. Postal Service that the documents were
sent to a vacant house.
also defends holding Sansom's heirs responsible for her debt, saying
her legal guardian should have been maintaining her land and that
funds collected from the lien would "go towards replenishing the
public's money" that was spent to inspect and clean her property.
After The Desert Sun noted that a majority of Sansom's debt came
from punitive fines, which are not reimbursement of public money,
Lopez said the family should still pay because of their negligence.
city believes these fines are justified in this case due to the
willful, or at least reckless, disregard for the public safety of
the community which includes an elementary school as evidenced by
the nuisance on the property," Lopez wrote in an email statement.
the fines are justified because there was no 'good faith' effort by
the owners or successors in interest to contact the city, pay part
of the citations or abate the nuisance."
The family says they never saw the citations because they were sent to
an abandoned house, not to them. Kelman even has a photo of the
certified letter that was returned to the city, informing them that
the address they were mailing was vacant. The family found what has
happening from the Desert
Sun itself, which tracked the family down
while investigating the city's use of the law firm.
of the firm, Kelman tracked down Curtis Wright, one of the firm's
partners. Wright insisted that the firm and the city did its due
diligence to track the woman down. Then he presented this whopper of a
city doesn't have funds to do a manhunt for everybody who has a code
enforcement case on their property. Cities don't have investigative
reporters on payroll to find investment property owners.
arguing that the City of Coachella (2017–18 budget: $22
million) and his law firm that bills people for thousands of
dollars lacks the investigative resources of a Palm Springs newspaper
with a daily circulation of 50,000.
the sordid story here.
Kelman reports that both the Institute for Justice and the American
Civil Liberties Union have denounced Coachella's behavior.