When hiring a special magistrate, city officials could search for a jack-of-all-trades who would hear a wide assortment of cases, not just appeals of traffic citations generated by red-light cameras.
Since November, city officials have been shaping the duties for the proposed position. What emerged was a hearing officer whose duties would include code enforcement cases, animal control issues and nuisance abatement.
Then in May, state lawmakers voted to shift red-light camera appeals from the courts to cities and counties that use the automated traffic enforcement devices. A backlog of the appeals in courts inspired the switch, which takes place July 1.
So New Port Richey officials intend to add red-light camera appeals to the special magistrate job description. The city council is scheduled to discuss final passage of the special magistrate ordinance at its Tuesday meeting.
Hearings would be held at City Hall rather than in County Court, City Attorney Jim Lang explained during first reading of the ordinance that would create the special magistrate position.
In addition, the magistrate could administer liens against code enforcement violators.
Costs tend to go down with the hearing-officer system, Lang said. He based the New Port Richey magistrate ordinance on a St. Pete Beach ordinance.
While the city will inherit red-light camera appeals July 1, the new state law extended the deadline for appeals to 60 days, interim City Manager Susan Dillinger said.
That’s twice as long as drivers used to get to challenge a violation notice. The revision in the state law is not retroactive for any red-light camera cases before July 1.
The 60-day window for appeals gives the city some breathing room on hiring a hearing officer, Dillinger said. That means the city could take as long as Sept. 1 to have a special magistrate in place to hear red-light camera cases.
New Port Richey officials are talking to their Port Richey counterparts about sharing the costs of having a special magistrate handle red-light citation appeals. Port Richey, however, might restrict its special magistrate to red-light camera appeals. The multifaceted approach in New Port Richey makes it difficult to know at first just how much time a magistrate might need to handle the caseload, Lang said.
County courts remain an option if the city hearing officer becomes overloaded with cases. Dillinger has said the city likely would pay its magistrate a flat per-hour rate.
Candidates for the new position have to be members of the Florida Bar, according to interim Police Chief Kim Bogart.
There are, however, some exceptions.
“There are a lot of pieces that will fall into place” after the job is filled, Bogart said. The police department likely would have to assign a clerk to coordinate with the magistrate. The city clerk’s office likely will have to provide minutes of hearings.
Councilman Jeff Starkey asked if there would be a bailiff to provide security at magistrate hearings. That is one of the questions yet to be determined, Bogart said.
“It sounds like we’re going to have manpower issues,” Councilman Bill Phillips said, adding he’s glad county courts can serve as a backup.