In Oyster Bay, code matters soon can bypass court for new bureau
Oyster Bay town code violations soon can be prosecuted in an in-house court system rather than in district court in Hempstead.
Town board members approved the creation of the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication at a March 7 meeting, following in the footsteps of Huntington, Babylon and East Hampton.
“The town wants to make it convenient and easy for residents to comply with the code,” Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino said during a February hearing on the matter.
Town officials contend that having the court and Oyster Bay's building department together at the Town Hall complex will make it easier for residents to access documents and come into code compliance without separate trips to district court and Town Hall.
“One of the reasons why it's more efficient is that achieving compliance sometimes requires a visit to the Department of Planning and Development, which is just across the parking lot here,” Councilman Louis Imbroto said at the hearing. “So instead of going to Hempstead and maybe you end up going to the Town Hall a couple of weeks later, you could do it the same day.”
A chief administrative judge will head the bureau and will impose monetary civil penalties, but not criminal penalties. That judge may appoint up to three administrative judges.
In 2021, Oyster Bay sought authorization through state legislation to create the bureau. That legislation died after the New York Civil Liberties Union criticized it as a "misguided local attempt to roll back recent reforms that ensure full due process, including discovery rights, for all New Yorkers.”
The NYCLU said in testimony before the state Assembly that the bureau “would shroud Oyster Bay's code enforcement system in secrecy.”
Town spokesman Brian Nevin said in an email that the due process argument had no merit.
“The Town sends inspectors — not the tipster — to investigate complaints, determine if a complaint is valid, and then document the matter,” Nevin said. “The trained and certified inspector, an employee of the Town, then provides the documentation — including photos — in court, which allows the defendant to cross-examine this witness. That’s due process in its most solid form.”
In 2021, Saladino contended the state's 2020 discovery reform measures could stop residents from making complaints about code violations because their names would be disclosed to defendants if a case was tried in district court, Newsday previously reported.
Nevin told Newsday that trying cases in the bureau will protect “neighbors from retaliation when trying to preserve our community’s quality of life."
He said a date hasn’t been set for the bureau to start hearing cases and a presiding judge hasn't been appointed yet.
In 2022, the town no longer needed state authorization to create the bureau because new census data showed Oyster Bay’s population had risen above 300,000. State law allows municipalities with populations between 300,000 to 350,000 to create the bureaus without special state authorization.
State law says the bureau can hear cases for "all code and ordinance violations regarding conditions which constitute a threat or danger to the public health, safety or welfare."
While criminal trials require prosecutors to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the town attorney instead will have the burden of proving code violations based on the "preponderance of the evidence," according to the local laws creating the bureau.
Oyster Bay's town board amended more than two dozen town codes to add them to the bureau's jurisdiction.
Nevin said the bureau cannot handle criminal cases, which he said "will continue in District Court."
Certain violations become misdemeanors on a third offense if they occur in a specific time frame. Nevin said bureau convictions in those cases will count toward a third offense.