As Lawyer Questions Process, Claremont Seeks Investigator
Claremont — The attorney for a man who lost his home due to unpaid taxes said city employees didn’t have a legal basis for removing personal property from the house because the city had not issued a proper eviction notice.
Lebanon-based lawyer Brad Wilder contends the city’s failure to follow state law in evicting Roy Hunter raises questions about the process the city used last summer to “tax deed” the property off Route 12A, on which Hunter owes some $70,000 in back taxes and penalties.
“I want to know a little more about the process because Mr. Hunter has some concerns. Did it (the city) handle the tax deed process correctly?” he said. “We may go to court to undo that.”
Meanwhile, the City Council will meet in a nonpublic session Wednesday for an update on the hiring of an independent investigator to look into the matter, which city officials have acknowledged was mishandled.
“We are in the process of interviewing agencies. We want someone with no ties to the city,” Assistant Mayor Vic Bergeron said on Tuesday. “We have to get to the bottom of this. Find out who did what.”
Police Chief Alex Scott has already conducted an internal investigation into the matter.
Scott issued a public report to the City Council earlier this month in which he said the city had failed to establish a firm date by which Hunter had to remove his possessions, and returning the items to the house was the best course of action. He said he found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
“There is no effort to hide any information, and no effort to cover anything up,” Scott told the council.
Councilors did not dispute Scott’s report but still voted to hire an independent investigator to review the incident in an effort to put to rest any concerns about malfeasance by city employees.
Though Hunter has not been living at the centuries-old farmhouse at 54 Windsor Road, he is allowed access to the property, which he had owned since 1987. After the city took ownership last August, Hunter had negotiated several extensions of unofficial deadlines to have his belongings out of the house.
The home’s dilapidated condition made it impossible to secure, city attorney Jane Taylor said this week.
“The doors were not solid enough for locks, and even if you boarded everything up, it was open underneath,” she said.
Taylor said when city officials removed Hunter’s possessions from the house on June 24, they did so because of the home’s deteriorating condition and the need to protect Hunter’s personal property.
“I don’t know that there is any particular statute that governs this issue other than it was prudent to secure the property,” Taylor said.
The city quickly backtracked on the decision, however, and the items were returned to the house next day.
Claremont Police Capt. Mark Chase said Tuesday that city officials are still negotiating with Wilder on a date to have Hunter take his things from the property.
On June 25, the same day his possessions were returned, Hunter was served a seven-day eviction notice. He then hired Wilder, who challenged the eviction order, which the city later withdrew because it cited state law related to tenants and landlords, which Wilder and Taylor agreed was not applicable in this case.
“The city is not in a landlord-tenant situation,” Taylor said, because Hunter is not paying rent and not living in the house.
Wilder said last week in the absence of a formal eviction notice, the city in June did not have the right to remove Hunter’s personal items.
“That is borne out by the eviction notice (the city later filed),” Wilder said in an interview. “If they had the right, why go and issue an eviction notice?”
Bernie Waugh, a Lebanon attorney with a background in municipal law, said state law is largely silent in the area of tax deeded property and personal possessions.
“There is a substantial question mark,” he said. “The statute does not really talk about it.”
Typically when a tenant is evicted, the individual has 28 days to remove personal property before the landlord can sell it, Waugh said.
“Whether that applies to tax deeded properties is uncertain,” he said. “The law is not terribly clear.”
In May 2013, the Claremont City Council was presented with a list of 19 properties the city was preparing to seize for failure to pay back taxes. The list of tax deeded properties consisted of nine houses, including Hunter’s, three commercial buildings and seven vacant lots. Of that total, eight houses, two lots and one commercial building had unpaid taxes predating 2009.
Finance Director Mary Walter said this was the first time in her 12 years with the city that she had to proceed with tax deeding. Previously, owners have been able to make payments to avoid losing their property.
In Hunter’s case, on Aug. 19, the city issued a 30-day “right to repurchase” notice with 15 additional days to pay the back taxes, interest and other costs. It never, however, issued an eviction notice, which under state law would have given Hunter a week to remove his personal property after the repurchase period expired.
“It normally states that by such and such date, you have to be out and any property left behind is considered abandoned,” Taylor said.
City officials at the time did not want to throw Hunter off the property, Taylor said, and instead chose to allow him an open-ended time frame to remove his possessions.
Hunter continued to live in the house until March, when the city’s code enforcement officer determined it was in danger of collapse. Hunter was required to move out, but he was allowed access to the property to remove his possessions.
In April, the city gave Hunter a deadline of May 1 to remove his property, and that deadline was extended to June 16. Both notices were verbal, Chase said.
When Hunter failed to remove his property by June 16, Taylor and Walter determined that the city should inventory, photograph and remove property of any value, according to Scott’s report.
On June 23, the city began that work, and a day later, public works employees — under the direction of Walter and City Treasurer Lisa Richmond — moved items, including wooden desks, to the Department of Public Works lot on North Street.
Almost immediately afterward, however, the process — including the use of a truck and trailer belonging to Walter’s husband — raised concerns, and City Manager GuySantagate ordered Hunter’s property returned to the home on June 25.
Santagate said earlier this month that the use of a private vehicle for city business was an “error in judgment.”
“The appearance alone raised some eyebrows,” he said.
Taylor this week said the city took the same approach with the other two properties that ultimately were taken by tax deed in 2013: Right to repurchase notices were issued but eviction notices were not.
In the other two instances, one owner left and the other repurchased the property.
Walter said she expects the city will have to write off most, in not all, of the $70,000 owed by Hunter.
Santagate said the incident has revealed a gap in the city’s regulatory framework.
“We need to fix the process,” he said.
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org