Behind the Headlines – March 23, 2018

Behind the Headlines – March 23, 2018


– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you.
Thank you. – Judge Larry Potter on the
role of the environmental court, tonight on Behind the Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] I’m Eric Barnes, publisher
of the Memphis Daily News. Thanks for joining us. I am joined tonight by Larry
Potter, recently retired judge from Shelby County
Environmental Court. Thank you for being here. – It’s a pleasure, thank
you for the invitation. – (Eric)
Absolutely, along with Bill Dries senior reporter with
the Memphis Daily News. Let’s start with
people who don’t, aren’t as familiar with what
the environmental court is. They may actually
be more familiar with some of the things
you’ve ruled on and overseen, particularly some of the
more high profile ones. But you, I believe,
were the first judge for the environmental
court some 30 years ago. Is that correct? – Certainly in the
city of Memphis, state of Tennessee I was. I’m told by Keep
America Beautiful that we were number
three in the nation. We’re considered to be the most active environmental
court in the country and the role model
for other cities. We have evangelized
this concept, taking it to other cities,
Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Jackson,
Cleveland, Tennessee. Just, and we go on and on,
many across the country. It is a concept that works, and it is somewhat
innovative in its methods. – And it is not necessarily, if people hear environmental, they kind of think
natural resources or they think air
quality or water quality. That is a part, but it’s
a much broader definition. So go through some of the
things that the court handles. – I like to view it as
a quality of life court, dealing with, more
often than not, substandard homes, substandard
accommodations for people. We deal with blight, we deal
with commercial buildings, residential buildings, we
deal with vacant properties. Basically, anything and
everything that’s a violation of city code, county
code or state law, we would deal with
in that courtroom. Most of the federal
issues, though, which are basically the
issues that you were relating, – (Eric) Water quality,
natural resources. – Exactly. – Emissions, pollution,
in that sense. – We could deal with those, but those more often than
not go to federal court because of EPA regulations. We do not deal with EPA issues. – Alright, Bill. – Your honor, you also
have state nuisance law. How much did the
state nuisance law, how much did that have a role in changing what
environmental court does? – When we initially started
that court 35 years ago, it did not have a
lot to do with it. As the court grew, then it began
to take a much bigger role. And in the last 10 years, we’ve
seen a lot of these cases. The first gang injunction
that I dealt with was back, I believe, in 2012. And that community was
averaging a murder a day when the attorney general,
the city police department came in to us, talked to us
about issuing an injunction. I had to do some
research on that as to determine whether
or not I believed this would be something
that could possibly work. – Because in your court,
what most people know you for is a building that’s
in bad condition, and so, a gang injunction that
works under the nuisance law says, in essence,
you have people who we’ve identified
as gang members who cannot congregate in public, who cannot be out
after a certain hour unless they’re working or
doing something like that, and that fell under the
public nuisance law. – It did, and that
neighborhood we referred to were averaging a murder a day, and I signed that
first gang injunction in December of that year, and there was not another murder
until the following April. So that was very successful. Now some of the other
injunctions have not been as successful, but they
still have been successful. And there are a lot of
other things we deal with in the public nuisance area. Drug dealing, properties
that, topless bars that constitute a nuisance
in terms of drug dealing, in terms of arrest, other
issues that go along with such. It’s been a very
active area of the law for us in the last 10 years. – In terms of properties
that fall under this, where someone looks at
the building and says it’s not being kept up, it’s
not being boarded up properly, how many of those instances
are you dealing with someone who just doesn’t
wanna do the right thing? And how many cases
are you dealing with where someone just is
kind of overwhelmed by the responsibilities
of property ownership? – It’s a little bit
of both, honestly. You asked how many cases we
deal with in those two areas. Literally thousands. Literally thousands of them. Several years ago, I
helped write a law, we called it the Neighborhood
Preservation Act, that was back maybe
I think in 2006. That law never got
out of committee. And then the following
year someone else wrote it and they were successful. And that, Steve Barlow
and I think Dottie Jones and other individuals
were very active in that, George Cates and other
community leaders. And that law has
become very successful, to the point now that
we’re in the neighborhood of 500 plus lawsuits on that
one area of the law itself. – And those lawsuits would
be people who, again, it’s a blighted home or
it’s an abandoned home or it’s a crumbling
home? Is that an example? – And under that
law, now this is not including some of the
legislative changes that are before the
legislature now, but as it stands
today, it only deals with abandoned or
vacant properties, not a property where someone
is living in the property. So, if someone is living
there and it has issues, then that’s probably
going to be either a housing regulation
brought to court or a Shelby County
code enforcement issue or a health department issue. – When somebody, so
then let’s, I mean, we’ve had Steve Barlow
you mentioned, who, I guess he’s had a lot of hats but he’s been very
heavily involved in blight and
neighborhood preservation and has been on the
show a number of times. He’s now involved in
neighborhood preservation and blight authority,
which came out, I think, of the legislation
you talked about. When you talk about
those 500 cases, you talk about the
blighted homes, what is the outcome? It’s not about throwing
someone in jail, a homeowner in jail, that’s
not what we’re talking about. But we are talking
about, you know, the quality of life
in neighborhoods or the, I guess the
threats to value, all the problems that
blighted homes bring. What’s the outcome? Is it seizing the home? – (Larry)
No, no. That’s not what the
court wants to do. What the court wants to do is to go in if a case is
brought, and successfully, and it’s not easy, but
to deal with that case so that it’s
rehabilitated to the point that it becomes a
viable piece of property where somebody moves
into that property, it’s back on the tax rolls, and we’re reducing the
blight in the neighborhood. What a lot of people
don’t understand is that blight and
crime go hand in hand. And if you reduce the blight,
then you reduce the crime. And that’s why we’re
trying to focus upon the blight within
various neighborhoods. And by the way, there
are a lot of people that would say, well this
is only in the inner city. No, it’s not. This is in East Memphis,
this is in Cordova, this is in Frayser, it’s
all across this county that we have these
type of cases. We had a case recently
out of Bartlett where we had these issues. – We’ll probably come back
to blight, but switching, some of the more high
profile cases, I think, that Bill has written about, other people have written about, have been some of the
historic properties, I guess particularly in
Midtown and downtown. The consideration, what are
the rules, from your seat, your rules about,
you’ve got a, say, I won’t even go a specific one, we’ll just go a hypothetical one and people can
fill in the blanks. You know, a big mansion on, say, Union or East
Parkway or something that’s been untended
for many years. It’s crumbling, someone
comes in and wants to buy it. They wanna tear and
down and turn it into what they view as a
productive small business or restaurant or
something like that. You have seen those
kinds of challenges where that historic home
might be 100 years old, maybe some people find
it very beautiful, but it is in that
sense blighted. So at that point,
how are you weighing the interests of
the neighborhood and the historic
preservation people and the interests
of people who wanna come in and invest money
and put that property, if not that building,
back on the tax roll? – What a great question. And it’s not easy. Because you’ve got all of
these competing interests, and they all want it
done a certain way. But what I do in a
circumstance like that is follow what the law says. And my goal is to preserve
historic buildings. I can give you a
couple of examples. The 19th Century
Club, Clayborn Temple, these building have
been in my court. Crosstown, Sears Crosstown,
the Goodwin Institute, and we just, and
the Madison Hotel. On and on, buildings
that we have dealt with. What is the goal? To see those buildings
preserved, if possible. Preserve those buildings and
see them back on the tax rolls, see those properties viable and as a wonderful
part of the city. Doesn’t always work out. Early on we dealt
with a building, the old, I believe it
was the old Arcade Hotel, and this is, this
is way back when. And that building
was of such a nature that it was totally
unsafe for the public and I ordered the
building to be demolished. And I remember
reading an article, and you did not write
this I will say, that said that what I had done, the justice was
entirely too swift, and that it should have
been dealt with differently. Two days later, the
building collapsed. So I mean, these are not
easy cases to deal with. We had to block off a
part of Madison Avenue. – (Eric)
I was just thinking about that one, ’cause the
roof had collapsed, this was back,
Wharton was mayor, so something like four,
five, six years ago. – We had to block off – For almost a year. – For almost a year. – Because that building was
about a four story building, old, kind of
architecturally interesting. And ultimately, I think,
that was torn down. – We had to demolish that,
order it to be demolished because of the fact that
it had partially collapsed, and there was a such a danger, there was a concern
that if it collapsed, there would be a
blowout into the street, and if we had citizens
walking on that, then someone could be killed. So these are tough decisions. – Staying in historic for a
second, I’ll go back to Bill. Is it partly, I mean
do you have the tools or the, is the law such that, if someone comes to
you and says we need to interceded on this building
before it gets to that point, I mean is that the more
ideal circumstance? That it comes to you
before it’s at a point where it’s already
starting to collapse or it’s a danger beyond repair. – Absolutely, and actually,
we’re in a much better circumstance today than
we were 35 years ago, because now you’ve got experts who will go out and
investigate those buildings to see if those structures
are safe for the public. And what they’re
trying to do is to intercede before the
buildings get in the condition that we talked about
just a few moments ago. – (Eric)
Bill. – So let’s talk
about 100 North Main. – (Larry)
Oh yes. I wanted to resolve that
case before I retired, but I think that
was a little bit, a little bit too much. – Give a little background
on 100 North Main, ’cause we may be
too close to it. – 100 North Main is the
tallest building in the city, 37 stories, and as we
sit now it’s boarded up, boarded up better than
it had been at one point. Ownership changed just recently. It’s at the corner of
Main and Adams Street. So you had hoped to resolve it. Now that you’re retired, what does it look like the
way forward is for this? – When that case came
into the courtrooms, some of the concerns that I
had dealt with public safety. We had debris that was
falling from the building, in fact, I went down and
did an on-site inspection to view that property to determine exactly
what were the conditions, and we had some debris
falling when I was there. So we went back to court and immediately demanded that the sidewalks be cordoned off so that no one could walk
alongside the building and the possibility
of them getting hurt. Then we had individuals
that were climbing, getting into the building
and climbing to the top and taking photographs
that, I mean you see some of those photographs
and it was horrific. My concern was that someone
was going to get killed. Yes, extremely dangerous. So then I demanded that we have,
for the building, security. And that seemed to work. The building has been secured. I do believe that
there is progress. I think maybe there is a
purchaser for the building, and that eventually we will see
that building rehabilitated. Now let me say that
this is a process. This is the thing most
people don’t understand. A building like that
is not going to be here one day and the next
week it’s going to be new, it’s in a great state
and people are moving in and it’s beautiful
and everything’s done. It’s a process, and it
takes a lot of time. Plus it takes a lot of money. And that’s something
that I’ve always been a little bit concerned with because I want it done now. And I’ve learned
the hard way that it’s very difficult to
get something done now. – And also, you have to
balance the public need with what are the rights
that the property owner has. If someone buys a piece
of property like that and their intent, no
matter what they say, is to be a
speculator, in effect, to say I’ve got something here that someone’s gonna
wanna buy from me. If I just hold on to it, keep
it in reasonable condition or don’t keep it in
reasonable condition, someone’s gonna buy this and I’m gonna make a profit off of that. We may not like that, but that is that person’s
right to do that. – Exactly. Now we are beginning
to see, though, it’s a little bit different
than what it was 35 years ago. Now that individual
that you mentioned has to do certain
things to make sure that building is
not deteriorating and is not becoming a
problem for the citizens. And we look at it very hard, I demand, or I say I
demand, I used to demand that the inspectors would
go into those buildings, view those buildings
on a schedule and report back to the
court so I would know, is this building becoming of a nature that
must be dealt with? – And that’s part of
what I was gonna ask. When you talk about, you know,
you mentioned the site visit, you mentioned all
these buildings. I mean you’ve got a
lot of issues going on, but just simplify it as, they
are engineering questions about the safety of a building and the viability of it,
structurally and so on, and then there are kinda
financial questions. Is this a viable
building at any cost? Is there a viable investor
or potential purchaser? You’re a lawyer by training. I mean you’re not, and
I don’t mean this in a bad way, I mean you’re not an engineer,
you’re not a finance person, so what, how does that work? I mean do you have a team? You mentioned inspectors. Do you have people on
your staff who go out or do you employ them? I mean how do you
get that kind of technical expertise
on all those factors? – The different agencies
for the city of Memphis or for Shelby
County will do that. They’re not on my staff, because they have to be
separate from the court so that the court
does not appear to be in any shape, form
or fashion biased. We have to have these reports. We get reports from
the individual owners, from their engineers, and then we digest
those sorta things. And here’s what I’ve
learned in 35 years, that if you have insomnia, a great way to cure
that is to read those engineering reports
before you go to bed. That will cure insomnia. But I’ve had to
study those reports, I’ve had to dig into
things I never dreamed I would be digging
with, honestly. – To what degree do
you get people who, and I feel myself going into a, like a 1970s court drama show
where people say, you know, property is 9/10ths of the
law or something like that, but you must get people
coming to court and saying look, this is my property, what I do with it
is my business, and who are you to tell me
I have to do anything to it? Separate from, okay, it’s falling down and
it’s hitting someone. But do you get that
sort of pushback? That this is my property,
I’m up to date on taxes, and you’ve got no right
to tell me what to do. – Absolutely, and
I love those cases. Those cases were
fun to deal with. Those individuals
would come into court and say what you just said. I’m sorry, I’m not gonna do it. Okay. Now when we were, when we
started this court back in 1982, we didn’t have the jurisdiction to really deal with
a person like that. We could assess fines, and
that sometimes deterred people, but there were some people
that just wouldn’t do it. And if you tried to
hold someone in contempt as a municipal judge,
contempt was a $10 fine. So if you fined somebody $1,500
on a continuing basis, $50 per day
plus cost, you know, a $10 fine would certainly
get their attention, right? No, it wouldn’t. Now when we became a general
sessions court in 1991, then the price to dance went up. We then had contempt powers
that involved 10 days in jail. – How many people
have you ever jailed for mismanagement of a property?
– Several. A lot. – A lot?
– A lot. – And you also, I mean we have
just a few minutes left here, for property owners who are,
because there’s certainly health code violations
or safety of people, you can imagine those
people going to jail. But for an untended property and contempt of your fining,
you’ve put people to jail. – Yes, not because
I wanted to do it. That was the last
thing I wanted to do. I gave that individual
every opportunity, and I warned him, this
is what’s gonna happen. And by golly it happened. – (Eric)
Bill. – So, you took on the
environmental court mission. Is your successor,
whoever is appointed, whoever wins the
special election that’s coming up in August, are they obligated to keep the environmental court docket? Could they turn it back to a
regular general sessions court? It doesn’t seem
likely, but could that – They certainly could,
they certainly could. Now there would be a
lot of people, I think, that would be very
unhappy with that. Because this court
has a dramatic impact upon the well-being of
our city and our county. And I just don’t
see that happening. I don’t. Technically and
legally, yes they could. But I think it
would be a mistake. I think it would be a political
mistake, first of all. When I first ran in 1983, I was told the concept
of an environmental court was not something that
was politically popular. – Because people
heard environmental and they thought, this
is a tree-hugging court. – Absolutely, and we
had to overcome that, and we showed people that’s
not what we’re dealing with. And now I think
people understand the significance of the court and why it’s critical
to the well-being of our city, county,
and frankly, our state. – The election is when, Bill? – It’s on the August ballot. – It was interesting, when I
was kinda looking at your bio, and we have reported on many
many things you’ve done, I’d never met you until
today, but I was struck, I knew technically
that you were elected, but it is an
interesting concept. We only have a
couple minutes here, but the idea of elected
judges is strange, because we put, in some,
people want to think, hold judges to be as
independent as possible, as free of influence
as possible. I mean that’s the whole
notion behind a judge, that they are nonpartisan, they are free of political
influence and so on. And yet you had to run for
office, is it every eight years? – Yes, initially it was. – Well how do you balance that, satisfying the constituents
who elected you, with, you know, as pure independence
as you could manage? – Well, gosh, now
you’ve asked a question that we could talk
about for a week. Because in–
– We have a minute. – in the 1992 election, I ran
then to make sure that judicial elections were independent
and that they were not partisan. And that was a very
difficult election, we could talk about
that for a week. But it is not easy to do, but I do believe that if you
do your job, do it right, you’re honest about what you do and you’re upfront
about what you do, that the people will
respond to that. – And did you,
were there recusals and times when people
were in front of the court that were too close
to your campaign? I mean I’m not, I’m
really not accusing, I’m just curious how
that works with a judge. – Well it’s very difficult. I would always tell
the attorney general or the opposing council,
I know this person, and if you want me to recuse
myself, I will do that. – So the answer was
always transparency. – I’ve always told,
I know this person. I’ve lost a lot of
good friends that way. – Well unfortunately, we
will leave it on that note, but thank you for being here. – It is my honor, my pleasure to finally meet you,
and to see Bill again. We’ve been doing
this for a long time. – Alright, well
thank you so much, and thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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