The chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Housing Hygiene has resigned, in response to a judge's ruling that he says robs the board of its power to evict people from condemned housing.
"He's tied my hands," said John Victor, who was appointed to the county agency 17 years ago and has served as its chairman for 14 years. "I'm not going to be able to do anything as long as this ruling stands."
Victor's resignation Monday followed more than a month of political haggling between the courts and county health authorities.
Judge Robert M. Hurst, of the 19th General District Court in Fairfax County, in January refused to permit health officials to evict two elderly sisters--Dorothy Randall, 65, and Mary Elizabeth Flint, 67--from a dilapidated log cabin that had been condemned by the county public health department.
"The only thing I could have done was fine them or put them in jail, or both," said Hurst. "The end result would not have been what they health officials were seeking to achieve."
Hurst cited the case as a precedent, and said he no longer would accept criminal charges against poor people who had been ordered out of housing by the health officials because of health or safety code violations.
Victor had argued that the county files criminal charges against such people only after all attempts to relocate them have failed. He said the board brings only a handful of such cases to the courts each year.
When residents refuse to comply with health department orders, Victor said, the department's only recourse is to file criminal charges.
"We've never had anybody actually sitting out in the cold anywhere," said Victor. "We always try to help them."
Of the two women the judge refused to allow the county to evict, Victor said, "I couldn't in good conscience let them stay there. . . . You would consider their house a trash dump."
Victor said the two women refused to move out of the house even after county social workers helped them find other places to live.
"The judge is now telling us that under no circumstances are you going to provide help for these people," said Victor. "Just leave them alone.
"It's left me completely frustrated," said Victor.
Judge Hurst said he thinks it is unfair to file criminal charges against elderly or poor people just because they can't afford better housing. But he admitted that, as a result of his ruling, "At the present time there is no way to evict them. They health officials are going to have to seek another way of solving the problem."
But Victor said the Hurst's ruling opens the Board of Housing Hygiene to an even bigger headache.
"We have some slumlord cases where the individual who owns the condemned house doesn't even live in the area," said Victor. "Now we have no control over them, either."
County officials say they haven't decided how to deal with the court's ruling. Victor said he thinks health officials would be unsuccessful in appealing it because the board's legal representative is the commonwealth's attorney, who backs Judge Hurst's decision.
"I don't know what the solution's going to be," said Victor. He said several cases involving potential evictions are pending before the board.
Victor's letter of resignation to County Board of Supervisors' Chairman John F. Herrity made no mention of his anger over the judge's ruling.
It said simply, in part: "Please accept my resignation effective March 1. . . . I am grateful for past expressions of confidence."
"His resignation was very unfortunate," said Herrity. "I'm sure he won't be inactive after this. I'm sure we'll find something else for him to do in county government."
Herrity said the board of supervisors will submit nominations and vote on a replacement for Victor within the next three weeks.
The five members of the Board of Housing Hygiene are appointed to three-year terms on the board and receive a $25-a-month stipend from the county. It is a quasi-judicial board, charged with enforcing county housing safety and health standards.