Hear from mayor Deb Feinen Wednesday at 4:20 on WDWS.
CHAMPAIGN — The city council could take a step tonight toward overhauling the way ordinance violations are handled in the wake of a Champaign County judge's decision almost a year ago to quash thousands of outstanding warrants, leaving the city with the task of resolving those open cases.
In January, Champaign County Presiding Judge Tom Difanis issued a 15-word order eliminating 2,547 outstanding warrants for unresolved municipal-ordinance violations dating back to 2001. Some 1,800 of those were from Champaign.
Today, council members will discuss whether to hold a two- or three-day "settlement summit" in the spring to resolve those cases by accepting reduced fines and could take a step toward replacing the existing system with "administrative adjudication," where violations are heard by a neutral, third-party hearing officer instead of a circuit judge.
Right now, any time a police officer cites someone with a city violation — often to avoid using a more punitive state charge — that case goes in front of Champaign County Associate Judge Anna Benjamin. If a warrant is issued for nonpayment of fines or missed court dates, it's up to the Champaign County sheriff's office and Champaign County Jail staff to book the offender.
Difanis said in January that he quashed the warrants in part to lighten the load on jail staff but also to address the high number of repeat offenders and because they are "simply a lower priority" for the circuit court. The decision was a surprise, and he has yet to meet with city officials about it despite numerous requests.
Of the nine options in a memo city staff sent to council members Thursday, replacing the current system with administrative adjudication appeared to have the most benefits.
Staff members said the process would be self-determined, allowing the city to set up every aspect of proceedings, including settlements, hearings and payment plans. The city would manage its own records, dockets, schedules and venues, and the process could also be used for things like building-safety cases, which are currently prosecuted in circuit court.
Cities such as Bloomington, Decatur, Naperville and Springfield all currently administer their own ordinance violations.
But there are significant startup costs associated with implementing a new system, including for a venue, security, record-keeping and employing a trained administrative-law judge.
The settlement summit, which could be implemented on its own or alongside other options, would allow defendants in nonviolent cases older than three years to pay half of either the minimum fine or their remaining balance, whichever is less, to settle their case. City staff said only about 100 cases could potentially be closed through this method, leaving 1,700 for the city to work through.
The city has more options for pursuing the judgments, including going through small-claims court, hiring a collection agency, imposing liens on property or reporting them to the state for collection through garnishment of income-tax refunds.
Like other city and village attorneys, Champaign City Attorney Fred Stavins said he was caught off-guard by Difanis' decision to quash the outstanding warrants.
He said he was never approached by then-Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh or Difanis about the violations being a burden on their staffs and added that since January, his department's already-full plate got fuller as his staff prepared options for the council to discuss today.
"He didn't talk to anybody before doing this; it was completely unexpected," Stavins said. "And it's taken a lot of city resources to deal with this issue. And county, too. We've sent some of these orders back to court. These aren't city orders; they're orders of the court. It's the civic responsibility of the court system to handle our cases."
He said it feels like the city is going full circle as it considers going back to administrative adjudication, which it did away with in the 1970s, eliminating its court and magistrate in favor of ordinance violations being handled by the county courts.
Stavins said the city has had a good relationship with the county courts since, especially with Benjamin, who he said is "very responsible to the city and the process," and he hopes Difanis will meet with him and his counterparts in other municipalities in the county.
"I'd be happy to sit down with him," Stavins said. "Good communication is always helpful."