Photo by Miles Maguire
A 2017 inspection of this Mt. Vernon Street property turned up 11 violations, some of which ended up in court.
The chairman of the Wisconsin Apartment Association has been hauled into court for more than two dozen Oshkosh housing code violations since 2016.
Chris Mokler, an Omro resident who is a registered lobbyist and also serves as WAA’s legislative director, is the legal agent for two companies that have been found guilty in Winnebago County Circuit Court on 12 charges dating back to August 2016.
A review of court records by the Oshkosh Examiner found only two occasions when his companies were found not guilty. In other cases charges were dismissed at the request of the city, which is often a sign that a settlement agreement has been reached.
A housing code violation is not a criminal offense, and the only punishment is a fine.
Mokler has been heavily involved in fights over rental inspection rules, which have played out in the state legislature, in Oshkosh City Hall and in federal court. In an email, he said he believes he has been targeted for his activity, a charge that the city strongly denies.
Mokler was part of a group that sued the city unsuccessfully over a planned rental inspection program. In 2017 he served as treasurer for Citizens for a Better Oshkosh Inc., which spent $2,500 to promote the candidacy of four candidates who were challenging incumbents on the Common Council, including the mayor.
All four of those candidates had ties to the local real estate industry, elements of which were extremely upset about the city’s effort to improve rental housing conditions by more regular inspections. While none of those candidates was successful in 2017, one of them, Matt Mugerauer, was elected to a two-year term this spring.
In an interview, Mugerauer said he was not aware in advance of the steps Mokler had taken to promote his candidacy and that he preferred to speak for himself. He said real estate interests were upset not so much about the fact of the inspection program but because they felt they had been frozen out of the planning process.
Although the city has stepped up enforcement of housing code violations in the last two years, Mokler’s record stands out because the city rarely takes landlords to court.
City inspectors write up thousands of code violations each year, but the city says its goal is compliance, not punishment or fee collection, which is why only a fraction of cases, fewer than 10 percent, wind up before a judge. Last year 216 citations were issued by building inspectors, and the city is on track for about that many again this year.
“We try to work with [landlords] as best we can,” said John Zarate, the city’s chief building official. “We would rather work with them.”
In most cases the city will hold off from issuing a citation as long as a property owner is making progress on fixing a code violation, Zarate said. A citation is similar to a traffic ticket and kicks the issue into the court system.
Across all categories of violations--including speeding tickets and alcohol-related offenses--the city takes in about $300,000 a year from ordinance cases, which include building code infractions. Of the face amount of a fine, a significant portion is retained by the court system.
“If the city has a $75 fine, when court costs are added on that amount becomes $232,” explained City Attorney Lynn Lorenson. “If the person pays right away, there are no additional costs tacked on or interest, and so the breakdown is $70 to the city, $5 which is a kind of filing fee to the county, then the remaining $157 is court costs, which is made up of various fees to the state and county.”
The city does not track the money that comes in from ordinance violations to the specific reason why a citation was issued. As a result it cannot say how much of the total it receives comes from citations issued by the Police Department or the Fire Department or the Inspection Services Division or the Department of Public Works.
Officials believe a citation is the best way of getting a landlord’s attention right away, and sometimes the city will issue a citation for one violation while holding off on other violations. On at least one occasion it did so with a Mokler property where the inspector saw a recurring problem that was a safety issue. A missing lock drew an immediate citation while other issues were just written up in letter form.
Mokler’s frequent appearances in court records do not appear to be a function of the extent of his real estate holdings. He ranks as a large landlord in Oshkosh, but the properties owned by the two companies that have been taken to court represent only a small proportion of city rentals.
Although record-keeping is not exact, the city has identified over 4,300 addresses that it does not believe to be owner-occupied. By contrast Mokler’s main operating company, BT Mokler Properties LLC, is listed as the owner of 45 locations, according to the website of the city assessor.
The city publishes its housing code enforcement records online, which makes it possible to follow the interactions between inspectors and property owners.
In the case of one Mokler-owned property on Mount Vernon Street, the back-and-forth between the city and the landlord began in December. As of mid-September, three cases remained open, according to the state’s online system of court records.
On Dec. 18 an inspection, requested by the tenant, found 11 violations at the home, which is a one-and-a-half-story structure with white siding on the north side of the city. The building sits on a narrow but deep lot alongside an unpaved driveway.
Three days later, the city sent Mokler a letter detailing the issues that were found, including problems with windows, the back door, a smoke detector, a shower valve, the sump pump, electrical wiring and venting for a gas dryer. For its trouble, the city levied a $200 inspection fee.
The city also issued a citation that day for “failure to provide” a deadbolt locking device on the entry door. In April, BT Mokler Properties LLC was found guilty of this charge and assessed a fine of $232, which was not immediately paid. The company waited until August to settle, which cost it another $1.06 in interest.
On Jan. 22 the city had gone back to inspect and found eight uncorrected problems. A re-inspection fee of $75 was assessed. Mokler wrote a letter to the city dated Jan. 23. In it Mokler cited a number of issues, including the weather, a problem lining up a contractor, difficulty in communicating with the tenants and a discrepancy between the defect that the city cited and what the residents wanted fixed.
On March 7, the city sent another letter, describing five violations that it said still weren’t addressed. “Have all the violations corrected and a re-inspection scheduled by March 26, 2018,” the letter demanded. “Failure to do so will result in the issuance of citations to the owner. Citations are $232 per day of violation per violation.”
On April 6 the city re-inspected the property and issued four citations to Mokler, each one carrying a potential fine of $6,960. This amount represents 30 days’ worth of fines accruing at the daily rate of $232. The city also charged a re-inspection fee of $150.
Mokler replied, in a letter dated June 11, that the tenants had changed the locks and were not allowing entry into the property. He said he would be able to move forward on repairs “once we feel we can gain access, without our staff being harassed under threat of police involvement or other similar issues, or the tenants are evicted.”
The city issued two more citations on June 20 and assessed a $400 re-inspection fee. On July 2 Mokler wrote back to the city and said he was evicting the tenants and would work on the repairs after they were gone.
Three of the citations were resolved in late August with dismissals and agreements that the problems would be resolved.
“I think I have been targeted, for the obvious reasons of being part of the group that sued the city,” Mokler said. “I was also part of the group that worked to change the law that allowed the city to make this [rental inspection program] a profit center.”
New rental inspection rules were passed by the legislature earlier this year that have forced the city to make changes to its previous program. Some of the changes address concerns raised by landlords, but some of the revisions move closer to what the city originally envisioned.
City Manager Mark Rohloff disputed the idea that Mokler had been targeted for political activity. “We have records that have been documented as well as adjudicated in court that demonstrate that the properties Mr. Mokler owns, some of them, are not compliant,” Rohloff said.
“We seek to get compliance,” he added.
Mokler’s “allegations are a mask to his violations,” Rohloff said. “I think he needs to focus on his violations rather than throwing accusations at the city.”
The city should do more to educate and regulate tenants, Mokler said.
“Many of [the] issues I have had with the city are caused by actions of tenants,” the landlord said. “My only way to resolve, in the end, is to evict.” He also said other cities have found “better ways to work with housing providers rather then working against.”
The following are the cases in which a Mokler company was found guilty, according to the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website. Use the links to view court records on that site.
- On Dec. 8, 2016, BT Mokler Properties LLC was found guilty at a court trial of “failure to keep dwelling items in good repair - interior floor covering” and fined $232. The fine, and interest of $3.68, was paid Aug. 1, 2017.
- Also on Dec. 8, 2016, BT Mokler was found guilty at a court trial of “failure to provide screens for windows in dwelling unit” and fined $232. The fine, and interest of $3.68, was paid Aug. 1, 2017.
- On Aug. 9, 2017, BT Mokler was hit with a default judgment on a charge of failing to maintain windows in a dwelling unit. A fine of $1,624 was paid Nov. 6.
- Also on Aug. 9, 2017, BT Mokler was hit with a separate default judgment on a charge of failing to maintain windows in a dwelling unit. A fine of $232 was paid Nov. 6.
- A third default judgment was issued against BT Mokler on Aug. 9, this one for “failure to maintain porch/guardrail on rental unit.” A fine of $1,624 was paid Nov. 6.
- On Aug. 16, 2017, BT Mokler was found guilty due to a no contest plea of working on decks without a permit and fined $232. The fine, and interest of $4.08, was paid March 1, 2018.
- On Feb. 15, 2018, AM Mokler Properties LLC was found guilty due to no contest of failing to maintain a plumbing system and was fined $232. As of Sept. 21, the fine was unpaid and had accrued interest of $3.18.
- On April 19, 2018, BT Mokler was found guilty due to no contest of “installation of a noncompliant egress path for a commercial residential building” and fined $232. The fine along with interest of $1.06 was paid Aug. 24.
- On April 19 BT Mokler was found guilty due to no contest of working without a permit. A fine of $232 along with $1.06 in interest was paid Aug. 24.
- On Jan. 26 BT Mokler was found guilty due to no contest of “failure to maintain exterior of structure.” The $696 fine was paid May 9.
- On April 19 BT Mokler was found guilty due to no contest of “failure to provide deadbolt locking device .” A fine of $232 along with $1.06 in interest was paid Aug. 24.
- On July 12 BT Mokler was found guilty due to no contest of “failure to remove all junk and debris from around the property” and fined $232. As of Sept. 21, the fine was unpaid.