German Village Gazette

Environmental Court is 'people's court,' judge says

By

Finding where registered sex offenders live is easy.

Finding the locations of properties that are a blight on a neighborhood isn't.

Judge Daniel R. Hawkins said he is hoping to change that.

Hawkins, who was appointed to the Franklin County Environmental Court bench by Ohio Gov. John Kasich in July and elected in his own right to fulfill the unexpired term of Harland H. Hale, was the guest speaker at last week's meeting of Block Watch coordinators for the Northland area.

His appearance came in the wake of a hard-hitting series in The Columbus Dispatch that pointed to what appeared to have been lax efforts in the past to deal with blighted properties, particularly those owned by repeat-offender problem landlords.

"I want my place to be clean and I want my kids to grow up in the Columbus I did," Hawkins told the coordinators.

Hawkins, 37, is a native of the Northland area who went to St. Francis DeSales High School.

His parents still live in the Sharon Woods subdivision.

Hawkins said one of the ways he hopes to improve his community now that he's assured of being a judge until at least January 2016, is by increasing public awareness of court appearances for people who chronically fail to maintain their property.

"I really believe clean neighborhoods lead to safe neighborhoods," he said.

Formerly head of the special victims unit for the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office, Hawkins said he wants to take a cue from the ease with which people can discover where registered sex offenders reside by creating a website that would pinpoint the location of cases coming up in his court.

He said he's working with city code enforcement officials on the concept, which might encourage people living near "problem houses" to weigh in during court appearances or at sentencing hearings, in person, via email or through calls.

"It really is a people's court, as cheesy as that sounds," Hawkins said.

"I really want to do a good job on it."

He added that Prosecutor Ron O'Brien encouraged him to consider filling the vacancy on the bench following Hale's retirement.

"The more I looked into it, the more I fell in love with the job," Hawkins said.

In a normal court, a case comes before a judge after the crime has been committed, he pointed out.

In Environmental Court, the issue is generally an ongoing one.

"So it's really a court of compliance," Hawkins said. "My goal in my court is when a case is done, the problem is solved."

The judge, a graduate of the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, said he's tried to set a different tone and attitude since taking over the Environmental Court.

Hale, as was pointed out in The Dispatch series, frequently let cases drag on too long, in the hope some property owner would address an ongoing problem or issue.

No more, Hawkins said.

"If they don't follow through, there are consequences, unlike before where they would just show up and there would be continuances," he said.

"Every time a case is continued, the problem is still there."

Hawkins said he has taken the approach that, while he's not looking to punish property owners, he wants to hold the threat of high fines and even jail time over their heads to get them to resolve issues by specific dates.

He added that he believes code enforcement personnel have been heartened by his efforts, seeing cases dealt with as soon as they come up as opposed to falling into a "black hole" in Environmental Court and then two years later resulting in only a $40 slap-on-the-wrist fine.

Hawkins also said he's encouraged about the response to the Legacy of Neglect series of stories in The Dispatch from Mayor Michael B. Coleman, members of Columbus City Council and even legislators that might result in changes that would make enforcing the housing code easier.

Comments