Public nuisance ordinance is a go

Council members Pam Cuppari and David Thomas

BUCKHANNON — “As a young fireman, you were always afraid of dying in a fire. That’s the least of my worries right now.”

Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble said at Thursday’s council meeting that his firefighters are increasingly exposed to situations where they place themselves at risk from being assaulted, spit on, etc.

“In a month, we had six exposures to members of our department,” he said. “Two of those could be life changing. Those are the things that people don’t see. Three of those incidents were volunteer firemen. It was a traumatic event with someone who overdosed and this person decided to spit blood all over us. We’ve had biting incidents, we’ve had needle sticks, we’ve had assaults.

“We are here to help and I asking you all to help us keep our people safe,” Kimble said. “Until you are on the front lines, you don’t really know what society is really like. I’m asking for your help.”

Following another lengthy discussion, city council answered Kimble’s request and that of Police Chief Matt Gregory – to pass Ordinance 428 Properties Declared a Public Nuisance on second and final reading.

The ordinance, effective Jan. 1, 2019,  provides for the abatement of premises deemed public nuisances within the municipal boundaries of the City of Buckhannon. 

Councilman Robbie Skinner moved to approve which was seconded by councilwoman Mary Albaugh but there was still a lot of discussion before proceeding with the vote.

City attorney Tom O’Neill reminded council that the second reading reflects the two amendments from the previous reading including that property owners would receive notice on the first triggering incident and to clarify that any felonious assault or battery whether with or without a deadly weapon committed while under the influence of an illegal substance is considered to meet the criteria. 

   Under article 1, a premise used for the illegal felony possession, storage or delivery of or trafficking in controlled substances is declared a public nuisance when manufacture of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, delivery of a controlled substance or any felony offense  is committed while under the influence  of an illegal drug while on the premises andsecond, the premises is used for two or more such offenses or incidents within a 24-month consecutive period.

Any person who fails to implement reasonable and warranted abatement measured could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine between $100 and $1,000.

However, officials noted Thursday and in previous meetings that  in the 2 1/2 years Martinsburg’s ordinance had been in effect,  no property owners had been fined.

Motel owner Jerry Henderson told council Thursday that she was not criticizing first responders and what they must do.

“I do believe there is support for the original meaning of the ordinance,” she said. “Every question I have heard in any meeting has been on due process, our role in it, how would we know how to implement it. There’s no procedures given to us, there’s little explanation and we try to convey to everyone what the liability is on us. That becomes our issue.”

Henderson said she and other landlords needed more answers.

“My problem with this is we have also asked for an extension,” she said. “What would it harm anything to extend this and go through six months as a pilot project?”

Landlord Terry Mills told council he was indifferent to Ordinance 428 when the conversations began and was leaning towards supporting it.

“Overtime, I have kind of grown against it,” he said.

Mills questioned the exemptions which include any hospital, clinic or drug treatment facility that is licensed, certified or otherwise subject to supervision or inspection by the State of West Virginia.

Matt Kerner, director of the recovery organization Opportunity House, Inc. said he already has a zero-tolerance policy in place.

“We do that now on the spot,” he said. “If someone uses in our house, they are gone right then and there.”

Mills said, “So if no problem, why is the exemption in there?”

Mayor David McCauley said, “We are trying to balance the compassion for the addict versus trying to maintain this community in its best possible mode. We can do both. But in these instances where we have the same person in the same place  engaged in the same behavior repeatedly to the point that it affects the entire neighborhood, we can’t continue down that same road.”

Kimble asked Mills how many times the ordinance would have affected him in the last five to 10 years.

Mills answered, “None, so far.”

However, Mills said sometimes he thinks he has good judgment in choosing renters and sometimes he has bad luck.

Kimble said, “I see your concern, but you have to realize that those exposures – two of them could be life changing for the family. If this ordinance hasn’t affected you in the last 10 years and you continue doing  what you are doing as a good landlord, it won’t affect you.

Mill replied, “I would buy that if it wasn’t for the exemptions put in at the last minute. Be fair to everyone or don’t do it at all.”

Jody Light, who published a letter to the editor on behalf of the landlords association in Wednesday’s The Record Delta, asked for a tabling of the ordinance for three to six months but to institute the first notification for the landlords.

However, the ordinance passed by four votes with Albaugh, Skinner and councilman C.J. Rylands voting in favor of it along with McCauley. Councilwoman Pam Cuppari and councilman Dave Thomas abstained. City recorder Colin Reger, who had voted no on the first reading and had expressed his opposition to the entire premise of the ordinance on earlier occasions was absent.

Cuppari said she abstained because, “I agree with the idea of it, but I don’t agree with a lot of the wording in the ordinance. It’s not clear, even to me, even now. Speaking of fairness, I don’t think it’s fair that I may own one or two properties and other people who have motels – look at the number they are going to have to deal with.”

Thomas said, “I think it’s a step in the right direction. I abstained because of the philosophical dilemma that I look at  with our problems we have in our society today whether it is drug, violence a lot of different things we are doing.

“The county is exempt from this. I think we look at these things in a very Band Aid approach. I think it should be comprehensive. I applaud our law enforcement people and our fire department. I want to try to make a statement out there. This is simply a Band Aid. We have a tendency in our society to put our heads in the sand and not work together the way we need to. We are losing the battle against drugs and we need to do something comprehensive. I applaud all the council members who voted yes. I think this is something we should review.”

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