Attorneys try to stop nuisance ordinance

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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.

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johnston.cliff
2
Points
johnston.cliff 04/17/10 - 04:46 am
0
0
When the city didn't want the

When the city didn't want the X-MART porn store to do business in the area, they passed illegal ordinances and took extraordinary steps that have cost, and is costing, the city thousands of dollars. Their efforts have stopped, to date, the X-MART from doing business. Why can't the city make a similar effort for the Harrisburg area? Isn't action against the neighborhood problem as tenable as the potential social problem of a porn store? The business of renting to known criminals (still in business) brings down property values and endangers citizens. Simple steps could be taken. If the property owners aren't responsible, who is?

deekster
24
Points
deekster 04/17/10 - 06:32 am
0
0
Laws are for "law abiding

Laws are for "law abiding citizens". Not for "law breakers". As locked doors are for honest people. We have seen the pendulum swing to "more law breakers, than law abiding". There are more criminals than jail cells. And the percentage is rising in America. Chaos, anarchy, riots and revolution. "America the Once Beautiful". "God Once Blessed America". America Once Blessed God.

Brad Owens
4449
Points
Brad Owens 04/17/10 - 07:04 am
0
0
GREAT POINT Cliff! Too bad

GREAT POINT Cliff! Too bad the God Squad is not against drugs and trash neighbors huh? Seems to me that the commission cares more about what the churches have to say than their own tax paying citizens.

Too bad, I had high hopes on this.

Brad

NoCatchyName
30
Points
NoCatchyName 04/17/10 - 07:57 am
0
0
I applaud the idea of

I applaud the idea of cleaning up ones community but believe the method being considered is not the proper one. If the concern is with the criminal conduct of some in the neighborhood, that should be dealt with through the laws that are presently on the books. If the unwanted behaviors are a violation of the law, then the law should be enforced. The good folk in the neighborhood should assist the city/county in enforcing the law by reporting the crimes and testifying against the lawbreakers in court. Crime can not flourish where it is not tolerated.

It appears to me that the law they are trying to pass is no more than an attempt to require someone else (absentee landowners) to take the responsibility for cleaning up their community. Only in today's America does it It make sense to some to enact a law to control a behavior that is already unlawful.

Brad Owens
4449
Points
Brad Owens 04/17/10 - 08:16 am
0
0
Noname, These folks have some

Noname,

These folks have some as many as 40 calls against certain properties and they cannot do anything.

I know Jack Long and he is a very serious attorney. Looks like they will have a tough time getting this through due to the legal debate.

I say pass it and put a sunset on it of one year unles sit is renewed. Then you can try it and see if it works. If after one year there has been no real change and the law has not had a direct affect on these problems, just let it expire.

People told me the Aggressive Pan Handling Ban would not help and only punish the needy, but it HAS helped and has a direct positive impact.

Try it. It is better than doing NOTHING which is exactly what Augusta's problem is. All talk, planning, meetings, committees, and studies with no action.

Brad

Riverman1
84114
Points
Riverman1 04/17/10 - 09:21 am
0
0
I like Cliff's point, too. A

I like Cliff's point, too. A concentrated effort could be made to clean up Harrisburg with court approved searches of houses if illegal activitiy is suspected plus court cases made against the owners. The owners will be tied up in legal fees if nothing else and may decide to cooperate.

CorporalGripweed
0
Points
CorporalGripweed 04/17/10 - 09:30 am
0
0
Great points all (including

Great points all (including no name) but what gets lost in the media reports is this ordinance is not designed to hold ALL landlords accountable. The good ones already do the right thing by evicting problem tenants. It's to force the 2%-5% of so-called slumlords who refuse to do anything as long as their money continues to come in. And it seems these are the very landlords who are hiring attorneys to stop the process.

Riverman1
84114
Points
Riverman1 04/17/10 - 09:48 am
0
0
Remember that motel on Gordon

Remember that motel on Gordon Hwy that the authorities wanted to close? The police and building inspectors went door to door without warrants finding THINGS.

CorporalGripweed
0
Points
CorporalGripweed 04/17/10 - 09:56 am
0
0
That can be done when renting

That can be done when renting to the public. These businesses hold licenses from a government entity. There is the difference. This can not be done in private residences.

Riverman1
84114
Points
Riverman1 04/17/10 - 09:59 am
0
0
Corp, I looked it up before.

Corp, I looked it up before. A guest in a hotel has the same rights as someone who owns a home. No search can be made without a warrant. But if the police and inspectors knock on your door, it is intimidating. If you don't show identification, you could expect a seach after a warrant was obtained.

harrisburgwillrise
0
Points
harrisburgwillrise 04/17/10 - 10:47 am
0
0
Riverman, I asked Rob

Riverman, I asked Rob Sherman this very question this week and he gave the answer that Corp gave. Don't know where the truth lies. Also, why would a city attorney draw up an ordinance, present it to committee, and declare it unconstitutional? Is it because he used a template from another city in which he did not agree with? Why didn't he draw up one that was constitutional based on his personal feelings? This was set up to fail from the start. DOA thanks to Wayne Brown of our illustrious law dept.

Dixieman
14972
Points
Dixieman 04/17/10 - 11:14 am
0
0
Control what your tenants do?

Control what your tenants do? Heck, I can't even get my teenagers to do what I want!

CorporalGripweed
0
Points
CorporalGripweed 04/17/10 - 11:31 am
0
0
LOL! Dixie! But I'm sure you

LOL! Dixie! But I'm sure you know it's not about "controlling"tenants. Historically these ordinances came about as an easier way to rid neighborhoods of drug dealers without having to prove drug dealing. You get them on all the associated behaviors that bring these areas down.

Harrisburg Homeowner
0
Points
Harrisburg Homeowner 04/17/10 - 02:38 pm
0
0
From what I've heard, the

From what I've heard, the CNPO committee was lackluster (except for a couple of members) at best. I wonder if the committee was put together just to placate the citizens? It certainly seems so. Why else would an attorney on the committee draft a flimsy ordinance and then allow the law department to slam it? I wonder if any of our city attorneys had back-door dealings with these slum lords? It certainly seems suspicious. Maybe it is time that the GBI be given a call to come check this out. Something is certainly rotten in Denmark!

Harrisburg Homeowner
0
Points
Harrisburg Homeowner 04/17/10 - 03:18 pm
0
0
I just saw a link that our

I just saw a link that our neighborhood activist Butch Palmer found that shows that a Chronic Nuisance Ordinance works. Check it out everyone!

http://www2.co.multnomah.or.us/cfm/da/NDAP/index.cfm?fuseaction=overview...

Emerydan
10
Points
Emerydan 04/17/10 - 05:34 pm
0
0
These ordinances are not

These ordinances are not new.. you see them in cities all over the country.. and if drafted correctly, they are 100% constitutional. It seems to me that the law department did poor research in coming up with an ordinance. But then this is the same Legal Dept once headed by Chiquita Banana. I wouldn't put a lot of salt any any opinion of any staff attorney in the city legal dept. And another thing.. some of the people profiting from these slum properties are the ones hiring these big shot attorneys. We have entrenched special interests in this city who continue to get their way, because as we all know.. money talks. When you are renting a shack out in Harrisburg for nearly $2,000 a month (nearly 4 times the fair market rate)..hey, you gotta a pretty good thing going on.

Emerydan
10
Points
Emerydan 04/17/10 - 05:35 pm
0
0
I think something that really

I think something that really needs to be entertained is a licensing regime for rental properties. If you rent out a property that you do not occupy, then you should be required to obtain a license.. since essentially you are running a business. Don't all other businesses have to have a license? And btw, there is court precedent upholding rental property licensing.

corgimom
32600
Points
corgimom 04/17/10 - 11:22 pm
0
0
This is SO Augusta. People

This is SO Augusta. People worry about a parade- a PARADE, of all things- but when it comes to getting criminals out of neighborhoods, nobody wants to do anything.

I'd rather have parades than criminals.

TakeAstand
13
Points
TakeAstand 04/18/10 - 03:35 am
0
0
A while back I remember

A while back I remember seeing something about neighbors suing the landlord of horrid tenants in small claims court for something like preventing them from reasonable enjoyment of their own property by their tenants causing constant disturbances and the complainants won against the landlord because after complaint after complaint, the landlords would not get rid of the tenants for causing the disruption of the neighbors peaceful living on their own property. I cant remember the legal term they used right now. It was things such as constant dog barking, loud music, disgusting yard, cops called constantly etc. The neighbors complained and documented all the complaints they sent to the landlord and the landlord did nothing. There are things landlords can evict people for other than non payment of rent regardless of a lease. It was in another state, But if there is such a thing in GA, why don't the neighbors sue the landlords and after they get tired of paying small claims judgements and being drug into court constantly, they will evict the tenants, redraft their leases to include eviction for these things and be more selective of the next tenants. It's been a while but I know there was a case like this and it was won. the landlord tried to say they pay their rent, I have a lease, I can't evict them. The judge said, no there are other things that allow them to be evicted and the bottom line was he didn't live next to the troublemakers so he didn't care to take care of the problem so he had to pay the neighbors for loss of enjoyment of their own property. The judge said maybe if enough neighbors do it, the landlord will start taking more of an active role in securing better tenants. It may be a slower process, but especially for those landlords who own many properties down there they will start to get the picture when multiple neighbors get judgements on several properties. Supposedly things like this are easier to get done in small claims, a little slower, but possible and eventually gets it done. Hitting them in their pockets is the only thing they care about or understand. That on time rent wont be so profitable, especially when they get the writs of execution to have wages garnished and tax refunds snatched to collect.

CorporalGripweed
0
Points
CorporalGripweed 04/18/10 - 12:44 pm
0
0
Thanks for the great input,

Thanks for the great input, Take a Stand. The case against Mr. Weigle is costing him $350 an hour for his attorney. Ms. Davis is going without an attorney because one is not needed in Magistrate's Court. This is a start in getting a landlord where it hurts.

TheDarkKnight
0
Points
TheDarkKnight 04/20/10 - 02:05 pm
0
0
Yeah....probably more like

Yeah....probably more like $400 per hour. And Ms. Davis will wish she had an attorney when Mr. Jack gets through with her. You think they are sueing for Monopoly money??? How 'bout for their attorney fees? When they win this case, and they will, we'll see who hurts where. This is just another case in Augusta, where nobody has broken any laws, except not being who one group doesn't deem socially acceptable; like standing in your front yard or having friends over, all of whom one side doesn't like. That's why they have laws, courts, police officiers, and attorneys. To protect innocent folk just trying to live peaceably, from those who are bigoted. $2000 per month???? This is Harrisburg not Westlake. The Dark Knight is watching.

CorporalGripweed
0
Points
CorporalGripweed 04/22/10 - 09:59 pm
0
0
I understand that Mrs. Davis

I understand that Mrs. Davis has already had Jack Long as an attorney herself, so she knows what he is or is not capable of. Also the laws are not being enforced in Augusta and it's time for someone to take this thing to court to find out why. This is the only option the citizen has at this point besides suing the government. Sheriff Strength has said that this is not his problem, Code says it is not their problem, and the landlord says it is not his problem.. Who's problem is it? With a CNPO, this would have been solved without all of this hoopla. 98% of landlords who receive the first letter from the Sheriff under this ordinance take care of the nuisance. Problem solved.

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