City officials are grappling with whether to make changes to the Ashland Municipal Court that could improve its efficiency, but also take away from its flexible and sometimes quirky nature.

City officials are grappling with whether to make changes to the Ashland Municipal Court that could improve its efficiency, but also take away from its flexible and sometimes quirky nature.

Anyone who breaks a city law now faces a penalty of up to $500 plus fees — whether it's walking a dog without a leash, or abandoning a refrigerator that could suffocate a child who climbs inside.

City Attorney Richard Appicello is proposing a new classification system where offenses would be assigned different fines based on their severity.

A person caught walking a dog without a leash would pay a fine of $97 plus fees. A person who abandoned a refrigerator would pay $427 plus fees.

Under the plan, Ashland Municipal Court Judge Pam Burkholder Turner would only be able to reduce those fines by 25 percent. She would lose her ability to fine people $0 to $500 plus fees.

Appicello said assigning different fines for various violations could make the system more efficient, not only for the court, but for people who are cited.

For example, a person who illegally has a dog in an Ashland park would be fined $97 plus fees and could mail in the payment. As it stands now, the potential fine is much higher, which could prompt the person to come to court to beg the judge for a fine reduction, Appicello said.

For the smaller fines, Appicello said he thinks more people would choose to mail in payments. The fine categories would be $97, $145, $242 and $427, plus fees.

"For the person who gets a ticket, you can decide, 'Is it worth my time to take off a day from work or a half day to see the judge, or just send in the amount?'" he said.

Appicello said the proposed system would reduce the discretion of the judge, but she would still have the option to lower a fine by 25 percent.

"There's discretion — it's just not $0 to $500," he said.

Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness said a maximum fine of $500 plus fees is clearly not consistent with the nature of some violations.

"Sometimes it seems silly that the fines are the same for behavior that has different impacts on the community," he said.

Holderness said he thinks that assigning different fines for different violations could reduce the court's workload. He said many people who know they're guilty are going to court to fight citations because potential fines are so high.

"I think reordering the fines to make them more in line with the severity of offenses is a good idea and will have a positive impact on enforcement and the community," Holderness said.

For her part, Turner said she's not opposed to assigning different maximum fines to different violations based on their severity.

But she said she should still have the option of reducing a fine to $0, rather than only being able to trim a fine by 25 percent.Turner said every case is different, even if it involves the same violation.

As one example, Turner said a young man kept having loud parties. When he got cited for unnecessary noise, he told Turner, "I just figured that was part of the cost of having a party."

Turner levied a steep fine in that case. When a couple got cited for unnecessary noise when their outdoor dinner party got too loud, she said she was more lenient.

She said sometimes fines don't do much good when it comes to young people — especially when it's their parents who write the checks.

Ordering youths to perform community service can be more meaningful, she said.

Sometimes Turner gets creative in her sentencing.

One young man who was new to the community had climbed on top of the painstakingly restored historic lithia water fountains on the downtown plaza.

Early Ashlanders once had a vision of using lithium-laced water to turn the town into a world class mineral springs resort. The fountains are reminders of those days.

"He wrote me a marvelous essay about their history. That is what the judge has the discretion to do now," Turner said.

She said she sometimes has to consider the impact of a fine on a person based on that person's financial situation. A fine could be quite a hardship on a person living on Social Security, for example.

"If a person can't pay, then it goes to collections and it ruins their credit," she said.

As for increasing the efficiency of the court, Turner said she can't predict whether more people will simply mail in their payments rather than coming in to talk to her in court in person.

If the judge can only decrease a fine by 25 percent, more people may ask for trials in hopes of being judged not guilty, Turner said.

On the other hand, they may give up on the idea of going to court entirely, she said.

"I guess once they found out there was no point in talking to a judge because the judge can't do anything, then maybe they would stop coming," Turner said. "They would think, 'It's one more of those things that government has done that I can't do anything about.'"

She said she believes that residents want to have a flexible Ashland Municipal Court.

Turner said the proposed changes are so substantial that the issue should be taken to voters through a city ballot measure.

On April 20, the Ashland City Council is scheduled to consider an ordinance that would assign different fines to different violations. The ordinance would allow the judge to reduce those fines by 25 percent.

"Right now, people of this community believe they can come in and talk to the judge and there's some discretion, flexibility and creativity there — and this ordinance would remove that," Turner said. "I think there would be a great loss to the community."

The proposed fine classification system would not affect speeding tickets, or citations for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana or minor in possession of alcohol.

Those violations are common in Ashland and are heard in Ashland Municipal Court. But they fall under state law, not the Ashland Municipal Code.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.