published Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Walker County, Ga., plans 'environmental' court

When Walker County, Ga., sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell held a community meeting Monday night at the Cedar Grove Community Center, a man complained about burned-out houses — and provided photos.

"I'm getting lots of complaints about things," said Heiskell, who has scheduled 20 community meetings throughout the 447-square-mile county between April 1 and May 20.

"There's a house that had 100 feral cats in it," she said.

After the economic downturn of 2008, down-on-their-luck residents simply abandoned homes and left behind messes, she said.

"The people have moved, and you can't find them. Or a mortgage company owns it, and they sold it to another mortgage company," Heiskell said.

County officials can't go on private property to correct situations without a court order, she said.

To tackle such problems, Walker County plans to bring in an additional, part-time state court judge -- possibly semi-retired Judge C. Donald Peppers Sr. -- to preside over what Heiskell described as an "environmental" court.

"It'd be codes enforcement court. Sort of like drug court, separated from the rest of state court," she said.

The part-time court could get under way in June.

"It's been discussed, and it's been approved, so it could start anytime," Heiskell said.

Current State Court Judge Billy Mullinax's courtroom is Walker County's busiest and handles everything from misdemeanor traffic offenses to civil cases -- except for divorces and property line disputes.

"That court does a tremendous amount of civil business," County Attorney Don Oliver said.

He said an additional judge could help resolve time-sensitive ordinance violations such as unmowed yards.

"Those cases need to come to court quicker," Oliver said. It's bad, he said, "if someone's grass needs cut and it takes a month to get to court."

Judge Billy Mullinax will decide whether to appoint Peppers or another judge to oversee the new court. Mullinax didn't return a phone call Tuesday afternoon.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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