Bolton: Columbia must act to ensure code enforcement doesn’t turn deadly

Associate EditorMay 6, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— NO ONE should die as a result of the government trying to get them to clean clutter from their property.

And when such a tragedy does occur, as it did in January in Columbia, city leaders must do everything possible to prevent it from ever happening again.

I’m referring to the incident in which 78-year-old Robert Martin committed suicide as police negotiators, housing officials and residents watched. It was the sad, inexplicable end to a nine-month effort to get Mr. Martin to clean up the horrible clutter around his Bratton Street home.

Columbia officials might have done all the right things under existing procedures, but there’s no escaping the fact that the ultimate outcome was terribly wrong.

City officials had worked for months trying to get Mr. Martin to clean up his home. He’d been issued a number of citations, beginning as far back as April 2013, when an inspector happened upon his junk-filled yard. Among other things, Mr. Martin received a letter on April 23, 2013, telling him his house was in violation of the city’s ordinance governing property maintenance and that he had 30 days to correct the problems — or the city would act. In June, city employees cleaned up the property and sent Mr. Martin a $3,068.51 bill. The Air Force veteran didn’t pay, so Columbia placed a lien on the house he had inherited from his mother.

While city workers were cleaning the yard, they discovered a temporary utility pole with multiple electrical cords running across the ground and into the house — an obvious fire hazard, which led to the city ordering Mr. Martin to leave.

Still, Mr. Martin would go back to his house.

On Jan. 9, housing inspectors cited him for unsanitary conditions inside the house. A week later, when city building inspectors went to tell Mr. Martin he had to leave his home because it had been condemned for months, he refused. Instead, he came onto the porch with an old 12-gauge shotgun, and would later shoot himself to death as police negotiators and others tried to get him to put the gun down.

Inexplicably, Columbia didn’t review the work of police and codes enforcement officials on the day of Mr. Martin’s death — or in the days and months leading up to the tragedy. City officials said their system works.

Can there be any more tone-deaf a statement? Someone died.

City officials aren’t responsible for Mr. Martin’s death, but it’s irresponsible not to conduct a review that could lead to changes that one day could play a role in saving someone’s life.

Aren’t we left to wonder what if Mr. Martin had gotten intensive help months before? Help aimed at not only cleaning up his yard and house but addressing his compulsion to collect and refuse to let go of clutter as well as emotional and mental conditions that might have fueled the problem?

After all, a city housing inspector identified Mr. Martin as “a hoarder.”

Over the months the city dealt with him, was he treated as someone with a disorder who couldn’t control his excessive collecting? Or as someone simply defying city code?

Consider that this all took place in an environment in which city leaders are pressing to rid neighborhoods of dilapidated houses because they can lead to crime and hurt economic development.

While people should have wide latitude in how they use their property, they must adhere to standards that protect them and their neighbors. The rules cities and counties have regarding code violations — including making sure yards aren’t cluttered with debris, cars, refrigerators, lawn mowers, stoves and the like — are meant to preserve the character and integrity of neighborhoods as well as to promote public health and safety and protect property values.

Most people obey the rules.

Over the years, Columbia and Richland County have encountered colorful characters who have been cited for stockpiling debris and refused to clean up, instead raising legal questions about the government’s right to limit what they can do on or with their property.

But the Martin case was different. Something was very wrong, and he needed help. And as the city grows, it’s likely to run into even more of these situations and must be prepared to handle them.

More and more communities are encountering residents who are genuinely struggling with an excessive compulsion to collect all kinds of things and need help with what in 2013 was classified as a mental disorder — hoarding.

Does that mean code enforcement goes lacking? No. But it does mean that the city should work toward an outcome that not only removes hazardous clutter but also benefits the troubled property owner.

Columbia officials might have done everything by the book in dealing with Mr. Martin, but isn’t it possible that there are some precautions that need to be added to the book? Are there procedures that should be in place to address hoarders? Is there training and information that needs to be provided to housing officials and officers — even to family and the public?

Fairfax County, Va., is among those that have taken hoarding seriously. In 1998, following a tragic house fire in which four homeless people died, the county established a hoarding task force that meets regularly and educates and promotes awareness throughout the community.

The multi-agency task force includes people from the health department, adult protection services, zoning enforcement, housing and community development, police, family services, building officials and mental health officials. The idea is to pool resources to deal with hoarding and address the physical, emotional, health and safety issues associated with it.

So even as officials work to rid communities of unsafe and unsightly residential clutter, they balance that with the rights of individual property owners and provide those with disorders assistance.

Are Columbia and Richland County at a point where they need to establish a formal task force? I don’t know. But they certainly need to coordinate with the community, economic development and human services agencies that could help address this problem in hopes of getting the best outcome possible.

It’s not nearly enough to handle such matters as purely code-enforcement cases and provide property owners who might have a mental disorder with a list of agencies that can help. City and county officials need training and support from the right agencies so they can recognize when someone needs that extra level of help.

The day Mr. Martin took his own life, police negotiators and city inspectors were so shaken they had to undergo counseling. And who knows to what degree neighbors who witnessed the shooting have had to deal with it? Yet there are city officials who say there was no need to review the process to see if changes need to be made?

Really?

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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