Do good fences make bitter neighbors? LNC rep a victim of municipal overreach

by Starchild
At-large Representative,  Libertarian National Committee

Attending Libertarian National Committee meetings can be a fun opportunity to see different cities and meet local Libertarians while helping the party, but it does take a bite out of the budget, so I usually try to stay with locals to save money on lodging.

When I flew to Kansas City for our meeting in August, I stayed at the home of another LNC member, regional alternate representative Sean O’Toole. He and his wife, former Missouri Libertarian Party Chair Cisse Spragins, were kind enough to put me up in their impressive, painstakingly period-decorated Italianate home, where they hosted a successful fundraising event for the national LP the evening prior to our meeting.

The following morning, as Sean and I were leaving to drive to the meeting location, he shared some unpleasant news: he’d just gotten a citation in the mail from the Kansas City Municipal Court, which he estimated was likely to cost him $1,000 or more.

Across his relatively tidy front yard, Sean O’Toole glances toward the stack of fencing materials for which he was cited, visible from the street only as a dark mass lost in the shadows of a healthy tree.

It wasn’t the fundraising party that was the problem. City officials had taken umbrage at some iron fencing leaning against the side of the house, and now they intended to make O’Toole pay.

Earlier in the summer, he received a written complaint from the authorities about some construction materials sitting in his front driveway. “Everything was neatly stacked,” O’Toole said. “It wasn’t out of order or anything.”

During the summer of 2015, someone accidentally drove a vehicle into the brick and iron fence surrounding O’Toole’s and Spragins’s front yard.

It was a while before the damaged fence was removed, as it took 10 months to settle the insurance claim. Because the couple had planned to add a fountain and make other renovations to the front yard anyway, O’Toole ended up removing the entire fence. There have been further delays in getting a landscape architect to draw up plans for the project, but it’s still definitely on the table.

Nevertheless, after receiving the complaint back in June, the Libertarian homeowner had the bricks and bent fencing hauled off, and the salvageable pieces of iron moved to the side of their house—facing a neighboring home, not the street—where on Aug. 19, they remained neatly stacked when the city government’s demand arrived in the mail.

The citation wasn’t completely out of the blue. Not many days previously, a guy O’Toole knows who does gardening work in the neighborhood, texted him that a white, city-owned car was parked by his house, and that a woman was in his yard, looking around.

Obviously any ordinary person doing this would be trespassing, but my LNC colleague told me that city housing inspectors are exempt from laws against trespassing, so can go poking around on your property without your permission.

“They take photos for their own evidence, but they don’t share the photos with you,” he said.

The Libertarian homeowner knows this stuff from experience, having been repeatedly cited for various “violations” pertaining to other pieces of property he owns in the Kansas City area.

A close-up of the iron fencing propped against the side wall of the porch, looking far from disorderly.

I asked Sean how many times he’s had to go to court over such matters.

“Oh god,” he replied. “Probably five times in the last ten years.”

The citation he received that morning declared his fencing a “nuisance” and ordered him to appear in court on Oct. 3.

O’Toole doesn’t like feeding the State, so he intended to show up and file an appeal. But if he were to lose his appeal, he’d be on the hook to pay even more. “They’ll charge $40 in court costs and double the fines,” he said.

Because of the previous complaints—which he suspected were the reason the citation bore only his name, not his wife’s, as the city can demand more of “repeat offenders”—he estimated the base fine alone at $1,000. All for having some neatly stacked ironwork leaning against the side of their private home.

Sean O’Toole is a software developer with a team of people working for him, and Spragins owns a successful small business. This couple can afford to stand on principle against such an outrage, and to risk being forced to pay even more, but according to the LNC member, they are the exception in their municipality.

“When I show up [in court], I’m the only white person [present] under retirement age who doesn’t work for the court system,” O’Toole said. In other words, most of those fined by the authorities for similar “blight” type violations are poor and black. They pay, or they go to jail, or they live in fear of being arrested and hauled off at any time.

“This is a system that simply picks clean the poor of Kansas City. It catches people like me because I own property in poor people’s neighborhoods.” He calls it “the city’s version of civil asset forfeiture,” adding, “They’ll do anything they can to extract money.”

This kind of robbery by government is, sadly, not unique to Kansas City. O’Toole mentioned that authorities in Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb made famous in 2014 in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, “systematically fine residents over what they’re allowed to do.”

According to an NPR article published in the wake of that killing, the city government there collected $2.6 million in court fines and fees the previous year, making it “the city’s second-biggest source of income of the $20 million it collected in revenues.” 1

Government extorting people through housing fines is a big enough problem in Missouri, O’Toole said, that the state has a law capping how much money municipalities can confiscate in this manner. It’s enough of a problem, he added, that lawyers “sit out in front of the courthouse looking for clients.”

But don’t think you’re safe if you live in another state—many local governments across the United States employ similarly extortionate practices.

A 2013 report prepared by a legislative analyst in Connecticut states that in some cities, including Hartford, “a property owner may be fined separately for each [so-called] blighted condition” found on a property, at the rate of a $100 fine per condition per day, and that “In general, municipalities assess the maximum $100 fine authorized.” 2

If municipal authorities should be micromanaging anything around the property, it is their own badly cracked, public sidewalk, in serious need of repair and clearly posing a hazard to pedestrians.

The system relies heavily on people snitching on their neighbors. “They encourage people to report you for what might be a violation, and they (the snitches) get to stay anonymous,” O’Toole said.

The LNC representative believes that’s what led the agency to come after them in this case, as the O’Toole–Spragins residence isn’t in a poor area.

“We have an over-zealous person on our neighborhood association,” he told me. “She’ll go around peering [onto other people’s property], looking for anything bad.”

O’Toole has occasionally volunteered to help elderly neighbors move piles of brush and such in their front yards, when requests have been posted on a neighborhood e-mail list, and admits he could have stored his own fencing materials elsewhere.

“I’ve got a trailer; I could put it all in my trailer, [or] get a storage space, pay $100 a month.” But why, he asks, should he be required to needlessly move an estimated ton of steel back and forth, when he’s going to be pulling it out soon for their construction project? “It is in my own yard,” he says. “You can’t even see it from the street. It’s absolutely stupid.”

Well, some might dispute that last point. From the perspective of a government unconcerned with fairness, property rights, or common sense, and simply looking to maximize the amount of money it takes out of other people’s pockets, the system probably looks absolutely smart.

In November, O’Toole updated me on the outcome of his summer troubles.

“I ultimately paid a small fine of $150 or something, as the address itself was a first-time offender,” he explained. The idea of an address being a “first-time offender” may sound odd, but one subterfuge that government agencies use to avoid respecting people’s individual rights (e.g., the right to a jury trial) is to charge a piece of property, rather than an individual, with the offense.

“However, I thought that the paying of a fine would give me more time to reassemble the fence. After all, they got their money,” O’Toole reasoned. “Instead, I got notice about 30 days later that if I didn’t move the fence parts, I would get a $450 fine and the court could issue jail time, in addition. They gave me ten days to rectify the situation.

“I’ve moved the fence to a neighbor’s garage to thwart the city’s efforts.”

1 “In Ferguson, Court Fines and Fees Fuel Anger”; Joseph Shapiro, “All Things Considered,” NPR: Aug. 25, 2014.

2Comparison of Municipal Blight Ordinances”; Julia Singer Bansal, OLR Research Report, Connecticut General Assembly: Nov. 21, 2013.