A split vote of 3-2 settled a long-time issue for local resident Bob Johnson in the Butler County Commission meeting on Tuesday morning.
Johnson, who is a retiree residing just outside of Douglass, spoke to the Butler County Commissioners in order to request the return of $30,000 assessed in the cleanup of his rural property. The property has since been sold to his sister in order for Johnson to pay for the cleanup.
Johnson, who has paid numerous fees and served some jail time, said he has been an active part in the cleanup on the property.
"I was hauling off materials to pay for the cleanup itself," explained Johnson. "I sold probably $20,000-$30,000 in materials just in the first few years. It was a self-sustaining ordeal."
The cleanup began in 2004. Johnson was ordered by the county commission to clean up his property to comply with Butler County health codes. The commission felt it was not being cleaned up in a timely manner.
Johnson had tore down a couple of mobile homes, although he did not remove the materials, and removed several of the abandoned vehicles. Afterwards, the county ruled every building structure without an active foundation had to be removed. At one point in the process, Johnson was found in contempt of court and served 14 weekends, for a total of 28 days in the county jail.
"I was happy to serve my weekends," said Johnson. "It was the first time that I had time off in several years from the cleanup."
After a while, it was decided although he did still have to serve his time on the weekends, he no longer was required to continue the clean up throughout the week. At this time the county decided to come in and clean up the property, assessing the cost to Johnson.
That cleanup included several items: 14 steel buildings, three manufactured homes, antique cars, spare siding and various farm equipment.
The case had come back before the commission on Tuesday because of a recent case in Cowley County of Barnes vs. Board of Commissioners that said commissioners cannot self-help to abate nuisances.
"They (commissions) cannot charge," commented Commissioner Peggy Palmer on the ruling. "There are other options that they can do. I support giving you back your money because we did not have the authority to do that."
"In my view this is new evidence," responded Commissioner Jeff Masterson. "I do think that might give Mr. Johnson an avenue, but I don’t know if that is to be decided by this board, but by the legal system. I think it needs to be for judges and attorneys to decide."
Commissioner Ed Myers also voiced his thoughts on the matter.
Page 2 of 2 - "I’ve been doing soul searching," he said. "In this case, the Barnes’ (Cowley County) who were initially accessed with the cost. It took them six years from the time things got rolling to the judge’s ruling. No doubt, six years, that was much more painful to the Barnes’ than it was to Cowley County.
"I just can't help but think that the bottom line is, with the best of intentions and with the best interest of the county in mind, the board made a mistake. It is clear that it was a mistake. It doesn’t change the law, but it clarifies what the law was. I’m inclined to support the idea of remitting the $30,000."
Johnson replied by saying, "I‘d appreciate it very much if the commission could resolve this today and not go through six years of legal ramifications."
Commissioner Mike Wheeler, who was not in favor of refunding the money to Johnson, answered, "When we initiated this action, according to this resolution, we were within our bounds to do what we did. So therefore, I stand by what we did before.
"You should have a conditional use permit if you’re going to have a salvage yard. It looks as bad now as it did before."
Johnson pointed out nothing new has been moved onto the property since the county completed its cleanup. He said his sister keeps him motivated to continue cleaning up.
Commissioner Dan Woydziak then expressed his thoughts on the matter.
"This started in 2004, so that was before I was on the commission," he said. "I think we cleaned it up in good faith and it went through the judicial system."
He noted the Cowley County suit does not say they can't clean it up and that ruling was not in place when the action was taken.
"Quite frankly after nine years, I'm tired of this," he said. "With that I will support returning the money."
Palmer then made a motion to return the $30,000 to Johnson with the reason being the Cowley County court ruling. Palmer, Woydziak and Myers voted in favor of the motion with Masterson and Wheeler opposed.
"Thank you very much, all of you. I will continue cleaning," said Johnson.