Warren moves to strengthen municipal court

Change seen as way to combat code, housing violations; code enforcement officer also being considered


Warren officials may seek to broaden the powers of the town’s municipal court to enforce zoning and housing codes, as well as penalize property owners who disregard them.

The plan is to broaden the court’s authority to make it easier for the town to resolve complaints over unkempt, unsafe or otherwise unsatisfactory properties. The increased authority would model Warren’s municipal court after the system used by the City of Pawtucket, where judges have more authority to compel property owners to clean up troubled properties. Warren’s court is largely ineffective in that role as the court can only issue fines; meanwhile, cases can drag on for years or more without resolution.

“What we do to enforce property maintenance codes is we notify a property owner to the best of our knowledge,” Warren Building Official Tony Carvalho said. “If they choose to do nothing it’ll drag on and eventually we’ll refer it to municipal court. If they don’t show up, I don’t know what to do at that point. In the meantime we have a blight problem that we can’t correct.”

The plan was expected to be presented to the Warren Town Council Tuesday night by Warren Town Manager Jan Reitsma and solicitor Tony DeSisto.

Since changing the scope and authority of the municipal court system here requires an amendment to state enabling legislation, Mr. Reitsma and Mr. DeSisto were expected to recommend that Warren contact its legislative delegation, both Senate and House, and request that they submit legislation which would amend the state’s enabling legislation to allow the increased authority.

“Hopefully sooner rather than later,” Mr. Reitsma replied when asked when that would happen.

The Pawtucket municipal court, with broader powers to adjudicate housing, building and zoning violations, is a good model, he said.

That city’s expanded court jurisdiction, he said, “sort of makes the difference. By getting that additional authority added (in Warren) we can expect the municipal court judge to address issues. A lot of them don’t get resolved.”

The change comes in response to Warren Town Council member John Hanley’s request earlier this year that Warren take a comprehensive look at its zoning and code enforcement, and overhaul it if necessary.

As the building inspector for the City of Pawtucket, he said he knows how effective that city’s municipal court can be. It’s a contrast to Warren, he said, where code and zoning complaints sometimes linger unresolved for year, sometimes decades.

“I want to make sure the administration and judicial system is supporting” code enforcement, Mr. Hanley said at the time he called for the meeting. “You can have all the enforcement you want but if you don’t have the court system behind it it all falls apart.”

Code enforcement officer

Council members are also expected to discuss whether the town can and should fund a new part-time code enforcement officer.

Mr. Reitsma said he has been researching the realities of creating such a position for the past month, though he said he is leary about giving out too much information yet on potential costs and responsibilities.

“There are different perspectives on what the qualifications should be,” he said. Also, “it maybe that when (the town’s annual budget review starts), we can figure out which way to go and offer a couple of different options.”


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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.