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A disagreement over whether a downtown retailer should have to pay a fine for a zoning violation has led to job probation for a city staffer.
City planning commission assistant Scott Hansen was suspended a day without pay and is on indefinite probation after disputing city manager Marco Pignalberi's decision to waive the fine.
The disagreement centers on a $250 fine assessed to retailer Fred Folletti after he placed two storage vans on his Second Avenue lot without a required city permit.
The fine, called an "after-the-fact fee," is supposed to be levied on property owners who begin projects prior to obtaining necessary permits. Hansen maintained that since Folletti placed the trailer without getting a permit first, he should pay the fine.
But Folletti claimed that Hansen told him he'd only have to pay $50 to clear up the matter, and appealed the $250 fine to Pignalberi.
Pignalberi dropped the fine and subsequently took the job action against Hansen. The Haines City Council backed the manager after an hour-long executive session last week.
Pignalberi explained that he dropped the fine because of what he termed a misunderstanding between Hansen and Folletti.
"Fred came under the impression if he paid the $50, the issue would be settled. Because of the misunderstanding, I determined that he wouldn't have to pay the fee," Pignalberi said.
Hansen concurred that he told Folletti the permit would cost $50, but said he didn't mention the fine. "We didn't exactly sit down in chairs and talk it over. Basically I wanted to get a permit out there. The fine is a different issue."
Folletti had no comment.
Hansen said the dispute stems from the difference in the way he and Pignalberi interpret city code. "Marco and I are coming at it from two different sides. My feeling is that the code is specific and you got to follow it. The prevailing view now is 'No, we can waive these things if we need to.' The council concurs and I'm okay with that."
Although city code specifies that the planning commission review zoning enforcement orders, the manager asserts the right to decide disputes before they reach the commission. Pignalberi said he acted within his power as city manager to drop the fine.
"The manager has the right to levy fines; that also means unlevy them. It's a broad authority. It's the first time I've had to use it.... I waived the fee because I have a general need to bring resolution to adverse situations," Pignalberi said.
Mayor Dave Black said he backed Pignalberi's action. "Certainly a person can say, 'Sure, you let Fred get away without paying,' but the thing is it was handled inappropriately. Marco dealt with the situation and I support him."
Black said he appreciates that Hansen has a difficult job. "Scott is a talented and principled young man. He'll come out of this okay. You have to learn where the gray areas are. Nothing is black and white, and we'll help him find the gray."
The city planning commission discussed but took no action on the issue Tuesday. Commissioner Greg Brask said future commissions will need to be watchful of adminstrative actions. "When we voted for a manager form of government, I think people wanted to take politics out of these kinds of decisions. We need to be careful that due process and checks and balances are kept intact.