Say this about the garbage monitors of the nation’s capital: No one — no matter how old — can escape their scrutiny.
In late August, the District’s Public Works Department issued a citation to 2-year-old Harper Westover, who lives in Northeast Washington, over a wayward piece of mail with her name on it, only canceling the $75 ticket after an online uproar.
The city’s new target: Doris Simms. She is 91. She has dementia. And she lives in a nursing home in suburban Maryland — not at her rowhouse in Northeast Washington, where an inspector (in fact, the very same one who went after Harper) found five garbage bags in front of her home’s sidewalk.
Doris’s brother Warren Simms, a retired D.C. elementary school principal who co-owns the rowhouse and visits it daily, said he called Public Works and explained that the trash belonged to his sister’s neighbors, who were doing a construction project. He described his sister’s new residence at a Montgomery County nursing home and argued that Doris couldn’t have produced the garbage at her Northeast rowhouse.
But city officials were not sympathetic, Warren said. Rather than erase the $75 ticket, the District is forcing him to make his case before an administrative law judge in November. Warren argues the same point as the parents of 2-year-old Harper: How can the city issue littering citations without proof that the alleged litterers actually littered?
“It outrages me,” said Warren, who has his sister’s power of attorney. “I want to emphasize how ridiculous the whole situation is. They sent me a packet at least 10 pages long for the administrative hearing. They could barely fit it into a legal-size envelope. There’s no way Doris or I could have generated the trash. The house is vacant. It was obvious that there was construction going on next door. The city is not targeting the right people. They are picking on the innocent.”
A message left Thursday for Cheryl Satchell, the city inspector who issued the tickets to Doris and to Harper Westover, was not returned.
In a statement, Zy Richardson, director of communications for the Public Works Department, said the agency was working with Simms’s family to “minimize hardship” and that it recognizes the case has “special circumstances and that investigating sanitation violations is not a perfect science.”
She added that department employees “work tirelessly” to investigate litterers so the city can be kept clean. She also said the agency will continue to “monitor our internal review process to decrease unmerited citations and improve quality control of our citation process.”
The three-bedroom rowhouse has been in the Simms family since the late 1920s, when Warren and Doris’s parents purchased it. After their parents died decades ago — their father was a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier; their mother, a housewife — the deed eventually transferred to Warren, Doris and their nephew, who works for the Department of Homeland Security. But Doris, who never married and had lived there since she was 3, moved to the Althea Woodland nursing home in Silver Spring in July 2015.
The three Simms relatives still co-own the semi-attached house, but it is Warren who tends to it daily, bringing in Doris’s mail, keeping the grass cut and, he said, making sure “that there’s no litter.”
So, Warren was a little more than surprised when he sifted through his sister’s mail in early August and found a violation notice issued in her name. The date of offense: July 11. The nature of the violation: “Failure Maintain Abutting Public Space.” The inspector attached two photographs of five overstuffed garbage bags on the sidewalk in front of the Simms’s rowhouse.
When Warren called the Public Works — explaining that the trash was put out by their neighbors and that Doris has been living in a nursing home, can’t walk and therefore wouldn’t have been capable of hauling heavy trash bags — he got nowhere.
“The city official said on the phone that it didn’t matter, that she’s registered as the house’s resident and it was the responsibility of the resident to make sure there’s no litter out front,” Warren recalled.
Warren said his neighbors acknowledged to him that it was their trash and offered to pay the $75 ticket to make the matter go away. But he refused. He said the neighbors told him they put the garbage out for collection but it was never picked up.
“It’s the principle,” Warren said. “I hate to use the term ‘police state,’ because that’s extreme, but it almost feels like it sometimes.”
He wrote a letter to the city denying responsibility and outlining his case. He also wrote that the photos of the garbage bags looked “staged.” The family has received repeated offers from real estate agents and developers who would like to buy the property.
“Constant pressure has been received to sell the house. If this violation was called in by a third party, this could very well have been initiated by them to facilitate their goal,” he wrote.
The city has scheduled a Nov. 17 hearing to settle the matter.
“I haven’t mentioned this to Doris at all,” Warren said. “She’d be terribly upset. She never smoked. Never drank. Never cursed. Went to Calvary Episcopal on Sixth Street every Sunday. She was a very neat person. It was one of the things we inherited from our father. He was ultra neat.”