The Baltimore Sun

Trash court was in session, and for Robin Patterson, that meant an opportunity to solemnly swear, in effect, I am not a slob.

Patterson didn't have to be in that downtown Baltimore hearing room. He could have simply paid the $50 fine for the garbage spotted behind his Northwest Baltimore home. But the maintenance worker says money is tight. Besides, he felt wrongly accused, so he had demanded a hearing.

"I clean my yard twice a week," he explained with a note of indignation to Administrative Judge Patricia D. Welch. As for the relatively small bunch of scattered papers shown in a photo, well, that was an act of God: "I can't help if the wind is blowing."

Welch gently admonished him to be tidier. "You might have to do it a little more often; that level of trash is unacceptable," she said. Then she found him guilty but, given his show of sincerity, cut the fine to $35.

For some property owners, fighting these citations - and the fines that range from $25 to $500 a pop - is as much about affordability as innocence. "People just don't have the money to pay them," said Sandra E. Baker, executive director of the quasi-judicial Environmental Control Board, as trash court is officially and more aptly called.

"That's what I hear all the time," she said. "They come here because they want to get a mitigation [such as a lower fine]. In many cases they do, as long as they don't have a long list of citations on their property."

Administrative judges rule on citations issued by seven city agencies, such as animal control and the Health Department. On this day, all 28 cases stemmed from violations written by housing code enforcement officers, many in Baltimore's northwest reaches.

Trooping to the Fayette Street hearing room generally paid off. By day's end, $1,920 in fines had been upheld. But the judge had forgiven $1,580 by way of reductions.

Property owners had been rung up for myriad violations - putting trash out on non-collection days, not securing trash in lidded cans, letting garbage accumulate, improperly setting out bulk items like mattresses, having a vehicle without front tags.

One by one, alleged scofflaws entered the hearing room hoping for dismissal or a lighter fine. It was a stuffy, windowless space made even warmer by exhaust from a projector.

Each property owner sat alone at a shiny wooden table that had a microphone. The code enforcement officer sat at a similar table. Both faced Welch, whose short gray hair matched her pantsuit. She peered out through oval glassesand spoke in an unfailingly soothing tone.

Before Patterson's turn, Phosia Taylor strode in for her hearing. She looked mad, scowling at the code enforcement officer, Arlene Jones, a stout woman in a white polo shirt and dreadlocks. It was Jones who had cited Taylor for having a car in her driveway without the legally required front plate.

The clerk darkened the room and projected photos of the 1991 Saab on the wall. Taylor did not dispute the violation. But she said the car was outside the garage only because she had donated it to a cancer association.

When the organization failed to arrive, she said, she called the Maryland School for the Blind, which did retrieve the Saab two weeks after the violation date. She had proof. Welch found her guilty but cut the $60 fine to $30.

"I'm on a fixed income!" Taylor protested.

OK, Welch said, you get a 29-day extension.

"You can extend it forever," Taylor shot back, "because I don't have it."

Immediately afterward, though, Taylor paid the $30. Later she told a reporter that she could afford the fine. "I can pay. I got money." But, she added, "I didn't want to pay."

Next came Patterson, wearing his dark gray maintenance man uniform. He was followed by William McFarlane, a landlord fined because his tenants put trash out on the wrong day and overfilled the cans. No reduction for him. He paid the full $200.

Next up was Aleta Ellis. "I am guilty," she announced, admitting that she did indeed put a single, neatly tied garbage bag in front of her rowhouse on Division Street. That was a no-no: All trash must be in sealed cans to thwart Dumpster-diving rats.

Ellis told Welch that while she owned trash cans, she didn't use them because they often wind up way down the block by the time she gets off her 12-hour shift as a hospital cook.

"From here on out, put it in a can," Welch advised before eliminating her $50 fine. That relieved Ellis. "Food is very expensive," she said outside. "BGE bills are huge."

Argee Freeman had seven violations and faced $530 in fines for, among other things, not having a proper parking pad.

Freeman disputed that a Dodge truck was parked illegally on grass in his backyard; he insisted there really was concrete hiding under the overgrowth. He also called it unfair for Jones to cite him Dec. 4 for trash bags in his backyard and again two weeks later on the same charge - accumulation of trash.

"Same trash she saw the first time," Freeman told Welch. "How can it accumulate if it's the same? Seems like double jeopardy to me."

Different sense of "accumulate," replied Welch. She found him guilty on six of seven violations. Even he got a discount. After the judge's reductions, his fines came to $315.

Welcome as it was, that was still a bitter pill, given that Freeman's employer has cut his hours because of a fall in business. As he lamented, "it's tough times right now."

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