Saturday, October 03, 2009

TOP STORY >> Ordinance hearing draws big, vocal crowd

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher wants to clean up Jacksonville by passing a comprehensive nuisance-abatement ordinance.

Resident Jean Williams voiced an idea at Thursday’s council meeting that involves just two pages — a one-page flier to be placed on violators’ doors simply saying, “Please do not let this happen again or you will be written up and/or fined.”

The second page would be a list of do’s and don’ts placed in water bills. “Everyone in the city gets a water bill,” she said.

The actual wording of the ordinance, which won’t be known for weeks, will be somewhere between what city officials are working on and what some of the speakers recommended during two hours of discussion, heated at times, off-topic occasionally and scattered with applause, amens and hallelujahs.

The council opted to have another meeting at 7 p.m. next Thursday in city hall to hone the lengthy nuisance-abatement ordinance.

City planner Chip McCulley told the council that his department had pulled 13 pages from the 33-page draft the aldermen were looking at, mostly building-code issues, because it had been previously approved and was repetitive.

Alderman Kenny Elliott had a number of changes he wanted. Alderman Bob Stroud had a list of at least a dozen amendments and most other aldermen also had questions, concerns or sought clarification.

Fletcher, saying cleaning up the city was one of his major campaign promises, wanted the council to approve the ordinance on the first reading at Thursday night’s council meeting and then make amendments and changes to it at the next meeting.

A proposed ordinance must be read and approved three times before it becomes law.

But Aldermen Reedie Ray, Elliot and others wanted to see something closer to what would pass and asked for another meeting with a cleaner version of the ordinance.

Seemingly a bit miffed, the mayor said the city was good at pointing fingers at the conditions of the Pulaski County Special School District schools in the city, but didn’t want to point fingers at itself.

Fletcher said after listening to about a dozen residents from the packed chambers that there seemed to be only four concerns out of the 33 pages. He felt if the council approved the first reading at Thursday’s meeting, then aldermen and the public would have two weeks until the next council meeting to make and suggest changes and then another two weeks before voting on the final version.

At the start of the two-hour public hearing, Fletcher said the city’s ordinances were scattered all over the books and this code brought them all together.

He said Jacksonville’s proposed code was modeled after a North Little Rock ordinance, and that Stuttgart and Pine Bluff were working on similar ordinances.

“North Little Rock has seen a lot of positive out of the ordinance. Property owners, afraid of the harsh fines, have become more responsible, which lightened the load for code-enforcement officers, saved city resources and allowed it to focus on other areas,” the mayor said.

Fletcher added, “There is a great need for this in our community. The idea is to get our people to stand up and take responsibility.”

In an effort to clear up some misconceptions, City Attorney Robert Bamburg admitted that the ordinance was “lengthy and involved,” but most of it already exists in other city ordinances.

The right-of-entry clause in the ordinance, which many residents voiced concern about, has been on the city’s books for many years, according to Bamburg

In fact, the mayor pulled an ordinance from 1974, when John Harden was mayor, and said it was identical language.

In explaining the right-of-entry clause, Bamburg said, “Police need probable cause to enter a home. It’s the same situation for code-enforcement officers. I don’t see our guys going rogue or wasting their time on non-violations.”

The attorney continued, “Please understand, we don’t want our code enforcement officers, pardon the analogy, to become Barney Fifes.”

The city planner said the new ordinance brings various codes into one. “It’s a working document. The backbone came from North Little Rock. We’ve been working on it and revamping it for the past couple of months.”

He said the 13 pages that are being removed mostly deal with building codes and would be repetitive.

“We’ll develop a simple handout for those needing that information,” McCulley said.

The first to voice concerns about the ordinance was Partne Daugherty. She buys, remodels and sells affordable housing in the city.

She said she had a number of objections, starting with the crime of having tall grass or any other code violation being a misdemeanor.

The ordinance states, “It shall be unlawful for a person, firm or corporation to be in conflict with or in violation of any of the provisions of this code. Any person who is convicted of a violation of the code shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and the violation shall be deemed a strict liability offense.”

Daugherty said that violates state law. “State statutes don’t permit nuisance violators to be charged with misdemeanors,” she insisted.

She was also concerned about the right-of-entry clause, which states: “The city engineer, planning director, code-enforcement officers and the fire marshal are authorized to enter structures for search and seizures. If entry is refused or not obtained, officers may pursue such search authorization as are provided by law.”

“You say code enforcement won’t abuse this, won’t do wrong, but you can’t say for sure,” Daugherty said.

Daugherty was also upset with the requirement in the ordinance that “all motor vehicles shall be parked on a dust-free surface.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. Whose driveway doesn’t have dust on it? Asking for a dust-free surface is kind of retarded,” she said.

Elliott had concerns about another clause that said a vehicle would be considered inoperable and in violation of the ordinance if “it has not been moved for more than three days.”

“There are many times my vehicle doesn’t move for three or more days and it’s fully operable,” he said.

Daugherty was also upset with all the “shalls, wills and musts” in the ordinance. “There’s no discretion given, no common sense. It needs a lot of work,” she said.

Marilyn Thornton, who was for the ordinance, said she’s been very disappointed with the neighborhood conditions in Jacksonville over the past two years.

“This town needs to be cleaned up. I’m tired of being ashamed of living here,” Thornton said.

She also questioned those who had problems with the entry clause. “Yes, it’s your house, but it’s my neighborhood,” Thornton said.

Williams, who told the council she was officially calling herself the trash lady with all the cleaning up she’s doing in her neighborhood, was raised in the inner city in Philadelphia.

“I do not want my new neighborhood looking like my old one in Philadelphia,” she said. “I do not want to see Jacksonville turned into a ghetto.”

She said the city needs to be smart in its approach to the issue. She explained that when you see a pile of garbage in a yard you don’t have to enter the home.

“We all know the person in the house put out the garbage,” she said.

Williams recommended the city put a flier in the violator’s door and be done with it. That’s what she does, and she even prints it on recycled paper.

Resident Rizell Aron said he didn’t understand the need to enter homes unannounced.

“If you really want to see change, let the people know you are coming and give them time to fix the problem. Most will fix it; it’s human nature,” he said, adding that it would be ridiculous to have officers kick down his door just to see if he was using 110 or 220 wiring.

Beckie Brooks, a local realtor and former mayoral candidate, suggested that the city hold another meeting, perhaps in the daytime at the senior center, to help make residents more aware of the ordinance.

“I still think a lot of people don’t know about this yet,” Brooks said.

She also said she was disappointed that neighbors weren’t helping neighbors more. “We need to pull together and help each other. If a neighbor’s grass is too high, we need to ask if they need money for gas for the lawn mower or loan them a mower.”
Brooks added, “Human beings need to be addressing this, not code-enforcement officers.”

Developer Mike Wilson supported the ordinance, yet admitted it was a bitter pill to swallow. “But if we don’t set standards for ourselves, we’ll have no standards,” he said.

Pastor Larry Burton told the council that 60 percent of the congregation at his Jacksonville church lives in Cabot because of the condition of Jacksonville’s schools and neighborhoods.

“We need to make the best of this moment and remember that this city is precious to us,” Burton said.

Resident Jim Hill told the council it was clear that the proposed ordinance had “a lot of fish hooks in it. You need to be careful with it.”