An oft-delayed appeal hearing about the fines levied on the owner of Summerset Village Apartments in central Fresno is scheduled for later this month, almost a year after 1,000 residents went without hot water or heat for several weeks.
Marin County resident Chris Henry filed an appeal of the $290,000 in fines that he owes the city. Henry is a Kern County oil company owner and restaurateur in the Bay Area and Santa Barbara. He owes the city for time spent inspecting and citing 1,450 code violations at the 220-unit complex.
Henry submitted a notice of appeal on Dec. 16 for money that was due Jan. 6. A hearing date was set for soon after that, but the city and Henry requested to hold off. Administrative hearing officer Michael Flores said both sides were working toward a settlement.
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Fresno officials no longer are considering a settlement. City spokesman Mark Standriff said Fresno officials waited for repairs to finish before moving forward with the appeal.
Hearing officer Ed Johnson, who started out with the case last year before the city hired Flores, said this week that both sides continued postponing the hearing after that – first so they could better prepare their documentation, then because of difficulty finding a big enough hearing room for the expected crowd, then so the city and Henry’s attorneys could talk more about the flow of the hearing, then because the date didn’t work for everyone.
Now the hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Sept. 26 in the City Council chambers, which Johnson hopes will provide enough room for anyone interested in attending. There is no council meeting that week, so Flores and Johnson booked the chambers through Sept. 30, in case the hearing lasts that long.
Johnson said he occasionally gets a request for a hearing date change. “But typically it doesn’t take this long for an appeal to finally be heard,” he said. “It’s been quite a while.”
The appeal hearing is public. Anyone wishing to speak will be allowed to give testimony.
Standriff said the hearing officers work independently from the city. “They are the legal intermediary between the city and those people who are appealing,” he said, so it’s up to their discretion whether delays are approved.
Johnson said he never has denied anyone the ability to reschedule. And he said the city doesn’t have to wait for the appeal to take action on its own, through abatement, to fix health and safety violations that pose an immediate danger. Those costs are billed to the property owner.
“Sometimes the city or a property owner needs more time,” he said. “As long as they have a good reason, the practice of this office has been to grant a continuance.”
Johnson said he believes the reasons for postponing the hearing have been genuine. Henry’s attorneys also plan to meet with city representatives before the hearing to organize what they need to discuss, he said, in order to save time.
“This is a complex case,” he said.
Henry hired Regency Property Management to oversee extensive repairs at Summerset. Regency president Brad Hardie said Henry spent more than $1 million on the renovations, which were finished in the spring.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. shut off natural gas service on Nov. 12 at the central Fresno complex because conditions were unsafe. The crisis spurred Mayor Ashley Swearengin to declare a state of emergency while crews worked to restore services to the low-income residents, many of whom are Southeast Asian refugees.
About 150 current and former tenants later filed a lawsuit demanding Henry pay them $3 million. The lawsuit was amended in March to include a wrongful death claim on behalf of the family of Her Xa Lor, 78, who died Jan. 2 of respiratory failure and pneumonia. His widow blames the cold in their apartment for contributing to her husband’s death.
Few property owners in Fresno who are fined for housing violations choose to appeal. Landlords also can appeal the administrative hearing officer’s decision within 90 days to the Fresno County Superior Court.
Johnson said he wouldn’t be surprised if one or both sides appeal to the court.
“This certainly isn’t the end of the story,” he said.