Time to stop and think about the property code

Welcome to the dog and pony show! Last night (Thursday, Feb. 20) people witnessed dysfunction in government at its best.

While opposition to the adoption of the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC) (Ord. 4) did not have much affect last night due to the preconceived outcome on its adoption of “all in favor,” several councilmen did call to point and try to table the vote until later because they had apparently not received or understood an updated memorandum on the amendments and its language for the final draft. Therefore, after three tries and more than an hour and a half of deliberation to “straighten out” all of the problems, while they should have discussed these issues in committee meetings, the IPMC passed with a 4-3 roll call, with three still dissenting to table the vote.

This should have immediately sent up red flags, and it did amongst the public watching this back-and-forth exchange of run-on interjection and a goodly amount of point to orders to bring the meeting back on track. If nothing else, this goes to show that council was not organized, even after its supposed 17 months of deliberation to come to final terms last night.

All on council are in favor of the IPMC, but because of the disorder the final passing vote of 4-3 reflects the dissent by some of council to fully comprehend the legislation wording before trying to make a decision to vote “yes.”

Yet in an awesome outcome, to the possible chagrin of council, Mayor Joe Matthews stated today (Feb. 21) that he would be vetoing the code to stall it and see whether or not it can’t be changed a bit more drastically to “better fit Marietta and its aging population.” While this stalls the council’s efforts to ram through with passing the IPMC right now, this has only a temporary effect and only serves to table the vote for another two weeks until council’s next public meeting, meaning that by that time council will have gotten on track and will most likely have a pure 7-0 roll call in favor (or at least 6-1), bypassing the mayors’ concerns and ability to further thwart the passing.

Besides the obvious disorganized fashion in which council tried to ram the code through last night, the code itself has raised a wide range of concerns about the language and the possible ramifications in which the IPMC offers power in a new bureaucratic office of local government. There are some in favor of the code because they believe it to be reasonable for government to try and wield a moral authority over property owners due to a few bad apples which may in some existential circumstance endanger life (not that it has done so) or looks unsightly. Yet these reasons are far removed from the probability of abuse.

In a recent article, I quoted another author which I agreed with, saying that no one wants to argue against public safety. Yet, as Mayor Matthews easily put in his dissent which he offered before the hours-long debate last night, the code will enable the city to burden property owners, many of whom are a part of an aging population, and as John Eells reiterated, it’s not just an aging people, but the aged and historic buildings and homes which may never meet any code standards. Therefore, while most on council feel that they are doing something good for the community in the name of safety for children and others, they are in essence legislating the history and private property rights out of the city, also as the mayor said, pushing away new business and residents in addition to new federal mandates such as the overburdening flood plain insurance passed down to locales to regulate.

While council likes to point out the favorite excuse to needing new enforcement because of “attractive nuisances,” there is a growing feeling that while these may be “visible,” they are still on private property. Cases where children enter a private premises and get hurt are not liable for their illegal trespassing, yet the private property owner is liable because they had something “attractive” to the children. Meaning the owner can be held liable for some other persons actions on their property even though they did not have consent to enter.

This opens a whole new can of worms, but points out that this is not about keeping people safe and understanding what is right and wrong, but rather about punishing property owners simply due to their lack of control of other peoples’ actions. Don’t bother putting up “No Trespassing” signs either because, even though Ohio statute states that signs carry the weight of law, they won’t help waive any liability off of the owner at the local level. When does “no trespassing mean, no trespassing?”

As for legislating broken down buildings that could have “glass windows falling out” or “bricks tumbling off onto the sidewalks,” many cases have been shown that the simple opening of a dialogue between building or property owners will do the trick. Yet what about those really bad apples? Well, besides the city taking it upon themselves to fine and penalize these property owners who, like council said, are mostly “landlords,” there is the possibility that after the “three strikes your out” approach is gone through, that the city will take care of the problem themselves. Albeit, they’ll get contractors to do the work all while the fines pile up against that property and show up as a lien or possibly if the place is vacant it could be assumed the city may seize the property fully and sit on it, eating the expense while they may look to sell it off.

Yet, in all that time and money spent, as a councilman iterated: “Who’s going to pay for it?” If the owners don’t pay for the upkeep and the lien exists, perhaps for an indefinite amount of time, it poses the assumed risk that the property becomes a city liability and the taxpayers will bear the extra burden for that and any other properties they hold, which have eaten out substance from the original appropriated funds in the general fund, unless appropriations are made elsewhere still posing the question of where the money is going to come from?

While there are details that can be gone over with a fine tooth comb, the opposition to this code is strong and may be growing. The aforementioned outlines the dysfunction in our local government and the real understanding on the wide ranging ramifications that such action being taken can have on individuals and whole communities.

There have been personal concerns over whether because a code enforcer is the sole interpreter of the code, and his ability according to the amendments in the current version of using the local police as armed agents to carry out enforcement duties, where the actual “enforcement” might stop? Will there be condemnations to properties because they are dilapidated, but people can’t afford to update? Will the city seize property to use as “green space” or “smart growth areas?”

What about kicking someone out of their home like the woman in Cape Coral, Florida, who didn’t live by the IPMC’s standards of what was considered a “habitable human environment?” No one asked her before kicking her to the curb, whether she thought her private property was suitable for human occupancy!

It’s about the issue itself: The code and its language is quite overarching in an incremental fashion which lends as a precursor to abuse, if not the simple ability of cities to enforce with armed officers a warrant which may infringe upon those rights which people should enjoy to reasonably be left alone, so long as they have not infringed upon the rights of others. Where is the common sense? It’s time to stop and think.

Sam Ludtman lives in Reno.