By Ed Runyan
State Rep. Thomas Letson of Warren, D-64th, made his first appearance before Judge Barbara Watson on a misdemeanor zoning charge, but his Monday public appearance was ever so brief.
After a 30-minute conversation in chambers with Judge Watson and a city prosecutor, Letson quickly left the Warren Municipal Building without stopping to talk to reporters.
No part of the hearing was conducted in the open courtroom.
Traci Timko Rose, assistant Warren law director, said Letson told Judge Watson he would be filing a motion to dismiss the charge on the grounds that a criminal court is not the proper venue for the action.
Another hearing will be scheduled in about 30 days, Timko Rose said.
Letson was charged by city officials with violating the single-family residential zoning on Foster Street Northeast for a house he owns there that has been used as a “sober house” for recovering alcoholics.
That use would require zoning for a rooming house, city officials have said.
Timko Rose said the offense carries a possible penalty of $100 to $500 per day he’s in violation of the ordinance. That penalty could be multiplied many times since the allegation is that it is an “ongoing problem,” she said.
Timko Rose and Chris Tanneyhill, city building official, said there have been relatively few complaints regarding the home in recent months.
The charge was filed against Letson, an attorney, in August, and he entered a written innocent plea Sept. 4 without having to appear in court.
Court officials then spent two months attempting to find a judge to handle the case, since Letson has practiced in many of the area courts.
Judge Watson, a retired Portage County Municipal Court judge, was appointed in late October. She will be hearing the case in Warren Municipal Court.
Timko Rose said one issue that will delay a trial is a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by the Fair Housing Advocates Association of Akron, alleging that enforcing the city’s zoning law in this matter discriminates against the people staying at the Foster residence.
“The FHAA is filing a complaint ... because [the city] refused to allow a sober house to be used as a dwelling for physically disabled individuals — recovering alcoholics,” HUD said in a letter to the city.
Timko Rose said there were avenues for getting permission from the city to operate a sober house, but Letson failed to ask the city for permission to operate such a facility.