Instead of answering to a board when facing code violations, Marathon residents will soon go before a special master.
Replacing the Marathon Code Board with a special magistrate, or hearing officer, has been a topic of discussion by City Council members since early 2017. Tuesday, the council moved to hire attorney James “Jack” Bridges as its new magistrate. He’s from Key Largo and has a practice in Islamorada.
Council members suggested hiring a magistrate last year, citing the end result of code violations as more fair and impartial when performed by someone from outside of Marathon. Monroe County uses a special magistrate, or master.
Bridges was one of four applicants to the city’s request for qualifications last month.
“I’ve done a lot of magistrate work in the circuit courts, sitting over divorce cases and civil cases,” he told the Weekly. “What a special magistrate does is make reports and recommendations to a judge, and the judge can sign off on them. You sit as a trier of fact and a trier of law.”
He said one of the most common code violations involves vacation rental ordinances and people renting their homes for longer or shorter than each municipality allows.
In Marathon, the minimum stay is seven days. In other parts of Monroe County, the minimum stay is 28 days.
“The fines for violating that can be pretty substantial,” he said.
Bridges has lived in Monroe County for 20 years and has been practicing law since moving to the Keys. He has served on the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board and ran for circuit court judge in 2014.
The Savannah, Ga., native went to law school at the University of Dayton and has an undergraduate degree from Baylor University.
He likes the challenges of special magistrate work.
“I like to tell people, ‘I’m not going to try to be fair. I’m going to be fair.’ You have to look at it from both ends. When people are in court, sometimes they’re at the lowest point in their lives, so if you treat them with respect it can go a long way,” he said.
Also, many times, code violators don’t even know what they were doing was against the rules.
“Never get mad about anything until you’ve asked why. That’s one of my philosophies,” he said. “Sometimes the answer can really shock you. Your job is to referee and make sure the evidence comes out in a fair way.”
He’ll now enter contract negotiations with City Attorney David Migut and a start date has yet to be set.
“I can’t imagine it will be more than 30 days,” said City Manager Chuck Lindsey.
“And in the meantime, we will have code enforcement hearings until the magistrate is here,” said Mayor Michelle Coldiron.
Approval of a housing project spearheaded by Anchor Inn owner Josh Mothner was pushed ahead to next month’s meeting. He wants to build four affordable housing units on the hotel property at MM 51 oceanside.
Council approved a forum to be held May 7 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the City Hall chambers for people needing help or information about insurance, or lack of reimbursements post-hurricane.