Clarence Coy and Odetta Russeau had lived in Preston Hollow for more than 50 years without having an issue with the law. That is until a city code enforcer issued a hefty fine for having lawn clippings in their front yard one day too early.
“We’ve lived in the neighborhood a long time and try to abide by the rules,” Odetta, 87, said.
The Russeaus celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary in November. Clarence, 92, a World War II veteran now confined to a wheelchair, has fallen several times this year. Odetta walks slowly with the aid of a walker.
They rely on the help of others to maintain their yard and perform other physically exhausting tasks. Normally a caregiver takes care of the yard and puts the trimmings out back until collection week.
However, on the day the code enforcer came out, a friendly neighbor had decided to help, and put the trimmings out before he should have.
The Russeau’s son, Keith, found the citation on the front door. He’d recently moved back to Dallas after a 15-year stint in the Army to help care for his parents. He was furious to discover that they had been fined more than $260.
“The city talks a lot about neighbors helping neighbors, but in this case, it’s like they are being punished for it,” Keith said.
“We truthfully could not afford the fine,” Odetta said.
Keith called the Dallas Code Compliance Department, explained the predicament, and asked whether his parents could receive a warning instead since they were first-time offenders.
“I said, ‘Now that I know the rules, I’ll fix it so that it won’t happen again,’ but the person on the phone said, ‘We can’t give you a warning. We can only give you a ticket, and you have to pay the fine.’”
Undeterred, Keith asked his parents if they wanted to fight it. After a few more unsuccessful phone calls, Keith and Odetta decided they would address the City Council. Clarence could not attend due to health issues.
“They were very gracious, but they couldn’t do anything for us,” Odetta said.
Keith hoped the city would give code enforcers more leeway in giving warnings based on individual circumstances. He was concerned many other seniors on limited incomes were being punished for problems not entirely within their control. A trip to court only confirmed his fears.
“We went to court and I was kind of shocked. There were 20 to 30 people in similar situations.”
The city attorney offered to cut the fine in half if the Russeaus agreed to pay. However, he cautioned that continuing to contest the citation could add court costs to the price of the ticket.
Keith, who felt that the attorney was trying to intimidate them, decided to continue fighting the charge. He was saddened to see others who paid the partial fine in fear of the consequences.
Dallas city officials have declined to discuss this case.
The city eventually dismissed the Russeaus’ ticket, but Keith said he was never given an explanation for the dismissal.
While happy his parents didn’t have to pay, he said he was disappointed that it took months and so much effort to resolve the situation.
“I just think that the ordinance officer ought to be able to give warnings, especially if it’s a first offense,” Keith said. “I understand what they are trying to do, but they really should be able to consider the situation and not just give everyone fines.”