Catoosa County is taking steps to improve its code enforcement policies and training following a discrimination complaint filed against the county last year.
The discrimination complaint was made by Ringgold resident Kennith Starnes, who filed his grievance through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The resulting investigation by the federal agency led to the adoption of a Voluntary Compliance Agreement proposed by HUD and signed earlier this month by the Catoosa County Commission, which requires the policy update and additional training.
The events leading up to the complaint began in 2014, soon after Starnes moved to Peachtree Circle to become a host home foster care provider for two individuals with mental health issues, who moved in with him in February of that year.
In April 2014, Starnes received a letter from a Catoosa County code enforcement officer stating that Starnes was in violation of codes pertaining to his home's R3 zoning because he was running a business on the property, which is not permitted under the residential zoning.
Starnes said he repeatedly attempted to explain to county officials that his foster care operation was not a commercial business and did not require a business license, comparing it to running a foster home for children. But zoning personnel responded by stating that only foster children were permitted, as opposed to foster adults, and added that Starnes was not allowed to have individuals who weren't related to him living in his home, due to its R3 designation.
In June 2014, Starnes moved out of the home in order to avoid being cited to the Catoosa County Magistrate Court, where he could have received a penalty of up to $1,000 and up to 60 days in jail if found guilty of the violations.
Though HUD investigators recently gave him the OK to move back into his home with his fosters earlier this year — as the county's Unified Development Code, in fact, allows a homeowner to house up to three foster adults with disabilities — Starnes said local officials never told him he had the option to appeal the county's initial decision. He said he only learned that was possible through independent research after filing his complaint with HUD.
"If I would have known now what I knew then, I would have nipped it in the bud and just took care of it," Starnes said. "But they didn't offer me any kind of options; they just said 'no.'"
Starnes claims the lack of options came as an intentional "roadblock" because one of the men in his care had been registered as a sex offender in 1987. Since the individual had maintained a clean record for more than 10 years, he was no longer subject to any housing restrictions, according to the national Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.
Starnes said he learned from a neighbor soon after the initial violation notice in 2014 that his situation had been brought to county zoning officials' attention by the president of his neighborhood's homeowners association, whom Starnes said had gone house to house petitioning to have him and his fosters removed due to the past offense.
Catoosa County denies any discriminatory action, and stated that Starnes presented additional information to HUD that was not provided during the county's initial zoning investigations.
County Attorney Chad Young said he believes the issue came as a result of gaps in knowledge, as opposed to malicious intent. Young agreed with HUD investigators that the codes enforcement officer handling the case could have been more knowledgeable about what is and isn't permitted outside the county's ordinance and under state law.
He said he hopes the additional external and internal training called for in the Voluntary Compliance Agreement will prevent similar incidents in the future.
The external training session will be conducted by pre-approved instructors from HUD, who will provide instruction about the Fair Housing Act. The internal training session will be conducted by Young, who will go over state law and county ordinances to ensure code enforcement officers are up to date on local zoning regulations and permissions. He said he also plans to work the instruction into employee orientations for future hirees.
"My hope is they'll be very effective, but honestly, training is only as good as the people who are receiving it," Young said. "You can train me all you want, but if I don't employ my training day to day, it isn't going to help very much. But I feel like our employees want to do the right thing. If they don't, it's not because of intent on their part; it might be because they just didn't understand or know."
The Voluntary Compliance Agreement also calls for the county to develop a reasonable accommodation policy, which would enable the county to make accommodations for individuals with disabilities that might not be permitted under the county's zoning ordinance otherwise.
A template for the policy, which will be posted on the county's website, is expected to be sent to Catoosa officials before the end of the year, Young said.
As a final stipulation of the agreement, the county will designate an existing employee as its ADA coordinator. The person in this new role will be responsible for responding to and processing any fair-housing complaints made by residents in the future.
Though no one has been selected to shoulder the additional responsibilities as of yet, Young said candidates unofficially being considered include the county's human resources director, Ann Cain, and Zoning Administrator James Davis, who oversees the county's code enforcement office. The post will not come with an increase in salary or additional benefits, said Young.
The training, policy update and allocation of responsibilities are all intended to make it easier for residents to learn the county's stance on zoning regulations, Young explained. The moves are also intended to make it easier for residents to identify the correct individual to contact, or options to consider should they need to report a complaint, allowing the issue to be resolved at the county level without a federal agency needing to intervene.
"Honestly, a lot of times, these complaints come about because of more of a failure to communicate or a failure of somebody to know where to go in the county to complain," he said.
Young said this is the first time Catoosa has encountered a complaint like Starnes' during his 20-plus years representing the county.
Starnes, meanwhile, does not believe the actions being taken under the agreement will create lasting change. He said keeping matters in-house would make it easier to "sweep matters under the rug."
Starnes alluded to the fact that Davis, one of the individuals being considered for the ADA coordinator position, was one of the officials with whom he corresponded during attempts to explain his situation in 2014.
"I'm not here to say that change won't happen," Starnes said, "but if they're going to handle it internally like that, appointing someone who was part of the problem to oversee it, how could you ever think that it's going to change?"
He proposed getting outside agencies involved as a possible solution to prevent further incidents.