Attorneys try to stop nuisance ordinance

It has been a rough week for the Harrisburg activists' movement, as various attorneys set out to shred the argument that landlords can be held legally liable for their tenants' bad behavior.

Since last summer, a group of homeowners led by neighborhood association President Lori Davis and former Augusta Commission candidate Butch Palmer has pushed for the city to crack down on drug dealing and prostitution in the poverty-ridden former mill village, contending that gentrification could begin only if absentee property owners were made to answer for enabling nuisance renters.

On Tuesday, in a response to a small claims court complaint Davis filed against the owner of a rental house on Eve Street, attorney Jack Long cited a state law that says landlords aren't responsible to third parties for damages caused by tenants' negligence or criminal behavior.

"Otherwise, nobody could rent a piece of property," Long said. "You would have a bunch of vacant apartment buildings. Nobody is going to rent a piece of property when they can be sued for the actions of the tenant."

Davis said she doesn't disagree with Long's interpretation.

"I'm not going to win this lawsuit," she said. "I'm proving a point, and the point is that we need a Chronic Nuisance Properties Ordinance."

But then later in the week, she took a hit on that front, too.

At a meeting Thursday of the committee drafting a nuisance ordinance, of which Davis is an appointed member, it appeared constitutional worries by attorneys for the city and the sheriff's office have derailed the effort. The Law Department has "grave concerns" about the code it drafted, staff attorney Wayne Brown said.

The proposed ordinance would have landlords cited when six nuisance activities take place on their property within six months. The process could lead to liens, which, if not paid off, could result in a house being sold on the courthouse steps.

That an owner could potentially lose property because of the behavior of others is "as un-American as you can get," Brown said.

Lt. Scott Gay said the sheriff's attorney, Jim Ellison, had similar concerns. As drafted, the ordinance relies heavily on the cash-strapped sheriff's office for enforcement.

Now the committee is looking at other options. Commissioner Joe Bowles, its chairman, said a better route might be creating a task force to work with neighborhood associations, code enforcement and law enforcement, zeroing in on problem properties and using existing codes to step up pressure on tenants and owners.

At Thursday's meeting, Bowles said the task force could be funded with about $150,000 a year from the commission. He said in an interview later that it could be coupled with a landlord training program, and some of the nuisance codes on the books could be tweaked.

Bowles said the nuisance ordinance as it's drafted won't be adopted.

Brown also noted that, while other cities across the country might have such codes, they haven't been tested in court.

Davis grew frustrated during the meeting and later called on Portland, Ore.-based nuisance ordinance expert John H. Campbell, whom she and others brought to Augusta in February to address the committee -- at a cost of about $8,000.

Campbell said Friday that he's aware of cases in his own city where the code held up under challenge, and he said he called Brown and referred him to a former Portland city attorney. He said he's "highly confident" other test cases could be found with some digging.

Davis said she's disappointed the committee didn't take a vote before apparently nixing the ordinance it was charged with drafting, and she wants to see the commission take a vote on it.

"I would like for somebody to explain what's un-American about trying to get criminals out of your neighborhood," she said. "I will die trying before I lose this neighborhood, and somebody is going to own up for the responsibility of what's been allowed to happen."

She and Palmer might get their next shot in Magistrate Court. In March, Davis filed a $5,000 claim against John B. Weigle Jr., the owner of 223 Eve St., which she called in her complaint a "known neighborhood drug house."

Palmer filed two $15,000 claims -- one against Joe Smith, the owner of the building at 1739 Fenwick St. that houses Mercy Ministries, the other against the ministry itself, which owns an adjacent two-story boardinghouse at 644 Crawford Ave.

Mercy Ministries is a Christian outreach to the poor, operating the city's only day shelter for the homeless. The activists say it has been a magnet for vagrants, increasing crime and litter in the neighborhood.

Both Smith and Weigle hired attorneys who fired back answers Tuesday.

Long said he expects Davis' suit to be dismissed at the first hearing, which hasn't been set.

Smith's attorney, James Trotter, told Palmer in a letter that if he doesn't drop his "frivolous" claim, his client will countersue for damages.

Palmer said he's considering hiring his own attorney.