Elkton Town Workshop, January 12, 2010 – Before an unusually large workshop audience, the Mayor and Commissioners discussed a draft ordinance for regulating rental properties in Elkton. The goal of this legislation is to ensure safety and improve the general welfare of residents, the municipal attorney, Norman Wilson, remarked. “There are a lot of places in the town that are being rented that have a lot of problems . . . and it doesn’t seem to get any better” he said as he added that he wasn’t talking about every landlord.
The aspect of the proposal considered at this session related to licensing properties. The attorney recommended licensing property rental agents regardless of how many units they managed. But the housing enforcement officer, John Smith, suggested individual units. The concern was that if the town needed to suspend a permit, the revocation would apply to the specific, problem unit, rather than all the holder’s interests in the municipality. In some cases, landlords have a large number of properties, the town administrator, Lewis George, advised.
A couple of commissioners expressed concerns as the professional staff’s discussion continued. “When we first got into this I really wasn’t for getting involved with rental units” as the codes we have should be enforced, Commissioner Piner stated. “I see us getting into something bigger than just getting into registering apartments. If the code enforcer is doing his job, I feel we shouldn’t be involved in that part. It should be going through the courts.”
In a move that differs from board practices over the past couple of years, Commissioner Jablonski wanted to make sure the elected officials received public input throughout the process, especially from landlords. “I don’t want to penalize the good landlords, because we’ve got one bad one. I want to have a public hearing” she stated as she urged the board to put the draft on the Internet so the public could see what was being considered. “The last time we discussed it, everything was already in the code book. These are in there. If they’re being addressed and enforced what’s the need,” she concluded as a number of rental property owners looked on.
Over the past two years, board meetings frequently became mired in controversy as officials rushed through decisions, without allowing for a reasonable public airing. As a result citizens only had the opportunity to make comments after officials made decisions. During this time, as tensions between the audience and elected officials heated up, a number of regressive practices made it difficult to monitor public business and provide constructive input.
Following one high profile decision that got the town hauled into court, former five timer mayor James Crouse, had suggestions for the board. “You vote on things and the first time a citizen hears about it is when you vote. One thing that would be helpful is you might discuss it at one meeting and vote at another. Give people a chance to view it on the web or whatever, but give people a chance to take part before you vote.” For the first time since Someone Noticed started covering town meetings a commissioner is now speaking up about getting public input before the process gets too far along.
Officials previously discussed this code in October 2010, the town minutes note. “Commissioner Hicks stated a Rental Registration was a tool to assist landlords and tenants in property maintenance and overall community success. He stated the registration would not be used to target residents or landlords. Commissioner Jablonski concurred with Commissioner Hicks’ remarks.” Mayor Fisona also said he favored registration. Commissioner Piner didn’t attend that meeting.
As for the practical matters on the current public policy issue, Lewis George reminded officials that there were several drafts floating around. “You need to get it into one document and then put it on the Internet and then schedule a public hearing,” he advised. That seemed to be agreeable to the board so as the reconciliation process moves along, the public should have an opportunity to hear more about the matter.