A Harlem couple recently filed civil suits against three city employees, claiming they abused their authority.
Martin and Stephanie Salazar sued City Manager Jean Dove, Operations Manager Robert Fields and Jerry Campbell, a planning and zoning code enforcement officer.
The Salazars live in a mobile home on their 3-acre-plus property on Lamkin Road. City officials required them to get a variance in October for a second residence because they intended to build a house on the land while living in the mobile home.
After receiving the variance Oct. 14, which Martin Salazar says others similarly situated were not required to obtain, the couple started construction. About two weeks before construction began, Martin Salazar said, he had contracted a company to cut down trees on more than two acres of his property.
The city, as the Local Issuing Authority for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, determined that the tree-cutting was "land-disturbing activity," which is an EPD-regulated activity that requires permits and the development of an erosion, sedimentation and pollution control plan.
"The reason I am suing them is they are acting outside their authority," Salazar said. Because the land was not disturbed -- the stumps were not removed -- those laws do not apply to him, he contended.
He also says city officials hindered construction progress by asking inspectors not to approve the home until the requirements were met.
"They are doing this to suppress me by trying to twist the law the way they read it, not the way it is written," Salazar said. "They are doing everything possible to oppress me by trying to enforce a law that doesn't really apply to me at all."
On Oct. 15, the city requested technical assistance and EPD officials visited the property. In a Oct. 28 letter to city officials, EPD Interim District Director Jeff Darley wrote that the tree-cutting was deemed "land-disturbing activity" and that the requirements applied.
Darley would not comment on the matter except to say they were called in as consultants and affirmed that EPD law did apply to the tree-cutting.
Salazar said he contracted Civil Solutions of Warrenton, Ga., to perform the required control plan. He said the recently completed plan suggested no further erosion control measures. The tree stumps and a 10-inch-thick blanket of pine straw were left in place, and Salazar said he even attempted to seed the property with ryegrass.
He claims several neighbors also have trees cut in the same manner using the same company but have not been made to meet the same requirements or even been approached by city officials about the matter.
"They have the right of law to make the determination as they see fit. That is where the discretionary issue comes in. That's fine," Salazar said. "If they are going to do that, they've got to do it equally with everybody."
City Attorney Barry Fleming denied claims that city officials purposefully discriminated against the Salazars. He said officials are not knowingly allowing other residents to violate the laws and they investigate all claims of residents who are.
"I have no doubt that somebody somewhere in the city of Harlem has done something that probably violates a planning and zoning law," Fleming said. "To our knowledge, there aren't any outstanding problems in Harlem that aren't in the process of being addressed. There are some we are working with, just like we tried to work with him."
The suits claim that Dove, Fields and Campbell used their authority to discriminate against the Salazars by enforcing the strictest interpretation of the law.
Until the Salazars met the EPD requirements, the city required work on the property to be stopped. Since then, Salazar said, city employees have been targeting his family, driving by the property 10 to 20 times each day waiting to catch them doing something wrong.
"They are bird-dogging me," Salazar said. "They are making my life miserable."
As the Local Issuing Authority, Harlem is also saddled with enforcement of EPD law.
"I don't know of anybody that is regularly driving by there," Fleming said. He said Harlem is responsible for enforcing the stop-work order.
"I do know that during that time period when the stop work order was enforced, the enforcement people did periodically go by there to see if he was abiding by it," he said. "Beyond that, to my knowledge, the only time they purposefully go to see him is when he's asked them to come out there or something like that."
Salazar dismissed the suit in his own name Dec. 28, leaving his wife as the plaintiff, as a strategic move.
"It allows me to submit a separate suit later for the same action, or to ask for a separate award if we win," Salazar wrote in an e-mail.
He said that the suits are filed against Dove, Fields and Campbell personally and that they should not be represented by the city attorney.
"You can sue anybody for anything," Fleming said. "If none of these people didn't work for the city, they wouldn't have any ability 'to harass him.' So when you sue an employee based upon something they did through their employment, or allegedly through their employment, you are suing the company, or in this case the city, that they work for."
Salazar also filed motions requesting that Fleming, who was a state representative until Jan. 15, be disqualified from the case because of a conflict of interest. Salazar had contacted Fleming as his state representative for assistance in the matter.
Salazar says the problems started when a letter to the editor was published in The Columbia County News-Times on Oct. 1 under his wife's name.
"They are retaliating because of the fact that I wrote that letter and they didn't like it," Salazar said. "It is their way to get even. They are being vindictive and using what little authority they have to stop me and make it miserable for me."
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