CECIL CHATTER: County Council Considers Crime Cluster Crackdown; Ready for Their Close-ups; Barn Brides Brouhaha

February 22, 2017
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“CRIMINAL NUISANCE” PROPERTIES FACE COUNTY CRACKDOWN

For years, Cecil County government, law enforcement and neighbors have been trying to clean up run-down properties, especially in trailer parks, that have become home to drug dealing and criminal activity. Now the county government is looking to crack down on absentee landlords with proposed legislation that could impose escalating sanctions to clean up “criminal nuisance” properties.

The 16-page resolution proposed at the Council’s 2/21/2017 worksession doesn’t mention the Lakeside trailer park, but in comments by some officials it was clear that the North East-area development is considered a prime candidate for the enforcement proposal.

Drugs and criminal activity have long been a problem at the site, where mobile homes and the lots on which they sit are often individually owned by absentee landlords, who then rent out the low-cost dwellings to tenants. Unlike other trailer parks, where the lots are owned by a central management that could enforce rules and evict problem residents, at Lakeside individual owners act as landlords for many, if not most, of the dwellings.

Lakeside is also home to multiple people listed on the state sex-offender registry.

In the past, the county has sometimes used health and safety code enforcement steps to try to clean up run-down properties, even to the point of an occasional demolition paid for by the county with liens attached to the property to collect the costs. But problems have persisted, despite an active community association of residents who have repeatedly asked the county to help clean up the place.

County Executive Alan McCarthy said his administration, in consultation with Sheriff Scott Adams and community leaders, came up with the legislation as a way to address a longstanding problem that has only gotten worse as the illegal drug trade has exploded in the county. “We recognize there are pockets of crime in Cecil County,” McCarthy told CECIL TIMES. “We need to take action against people who own these derelict properties and have refused to clean them up,” he said. “All Cecil County residents deserve the right to live in a safe community.”

So now the county is looking to send a wake-up call to owners of properties that have become “criminal nuisances.” The measure is modeled after a Delaware law, according to County Attorney Jason Allison.

The resolution provides that owners and tenants would be served a notice of a violation before the county takes the matter to court, and that property owners could show they tried to solve the problem by serving an eviction notice on a troublesome tenant, and/or co-operated with police in prosecution of criminal activity by tenants. If the problems persist, the county could seek a temporary “closing order” against the property that would prevent anyone from occupying it. If problems persist, the courts could issue an order requiring vacating the property for a year while allowing the county to seize the property and repair it as needed. The Court could also terminate existing leases and permit new tenants to move in, with rents paid to a receivership appointed to supervise the property.

Allison explained that the process “would not be fast” and owners’ “due process rights” would be fully covered through the court process. The county does not anticipate getting into the trailer business itself, and officials expected that “word will get out” and landlords faced with stern consequences would clean up their properties and remove problem tenants. “We want it to be change that sticks,” he added.

County Council President Joyce Bowlsby (R-2) said the proposal was meant to “hold absentee landlords accountable” and that “selling drugs from your living room is an issue.”

A public hearing on the resolution is scheduled for 3/21/2017.

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COUNCILORS READY FOR THEIR CLOSE-UPS?

The Cecil County Council has talked about providing videotaped coverage of their evening legislative meetings and Tuesday morning worksessions for years, but in-house IT staff always came up with cost estimates for purchase of equipment and staffing that were considered way too high for taxpayers to foot the bill.

The most outspoken advocate of videotaping in the past was former commissioner and councilor Diana Broomell, and fellow lawmakers feared filibusters and mugging to the TV cameras by Broomell, who was known for turning a routine review of past meeting minutes into hour-long debates and re-write sessions.

Recently, a private business came up with a proposal to provide video services with its own equipment on a per-hour cost basis. But that cost– $200 an hour for taping, editing tapes and posting them online, via YouTube or the county website—gave Council members heartburn.

So Council Manager James Massey looked into how to experiment with videotaping on a shoe-string budget, visiting the Town of Elkton’s video operations and reporting back to the Council that a simple video camera could be purchased fairly inexpensively and videos taken by a tripod-fixed camera could be posted later on the county’s separate Vimeo online video channel. (That way, the county website wouldn’t have to take up a lot of bandwidth with hours and hours of video hosted on its own site that could slow down response time for citizens searching for other online government information.)

The Council gave Massey the go-ahead at their Tuesday 2/21/2017 worksession to explore the project further, on an experimental basis, with potential video coverage of the county public schools budget hearings before the Council coming up in April.

Massey also said that “I think we’ll still continue the audio for a while,” referring to the current user-friendly postings of audio of the weekly council worksessions, Citizen Corner public comment sessions, and the twice-a-month evening legislative meetings that are posted quickly after those meetings, along with texts of agenda items and proposed bills or resolutions.

NEWSFLASH: As Cecil Times has learned from our own website logs, there are still many Cecil County residents who use dial-up slow Internet connections who would not be able to access videos of council meetings. But the audio, which is broken up into segments so listeners can hear just the agenda items they are interested in, works well with dialup connections. Any forays into video coverage of Council meetings should NOT be made at the expense of the audio recordings as currently provided.

Massey warned the Council members not to expect to be video stars, since the Elkton meetings videos usually only get from 10 to 40 views.

But we can think of at least one talkative Councilor who would clearly be tempted to mug for the cameras, providing easily linked video for a future political campaign website or Facebook page for whatever post it is that he is apparently already campaigning for in the 2018, or later, election cycle.

Perhaps the County Council should adopt rules similar to those of the US Senate, which resisted TV coverage of its floor debates for years after the House went on C-SPAN. The Senate bars members from using those C-SPAN videos of floor debate in any political campaign communications.

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BARN BRIDES BROUHAHA

Cecil County has been developing a booming new business in “wedding venues” at scenic waterfront or farm properties, and a bill currently pending in Annapolis would allow further expansion of the ‘here comes the bride’ business in the county under legislation strongly advocated by state Sen. Steve Hershey (R-36). But the Cecil County Council split, 3-2, in voting on whether to endorse Hershey’s bill, with the majority supporting it.

At issue is whether to require barns to comply with bathroom and fire sprinkler requirements that would otherwise apply to “special event” sites. Hershey’s bill would exempt barns that only provided ground-level event space, with no second-story accommodations and readily available exits on the ground floor, and would boost current crowd size limits from 50 people to 200 guests. Port-a-Potties could provide needed sanitary services rather than dedicated bathrooms.

County zoning regulations in the northern and southern agricultural areas, where many of the venues are located, could still limit the number of days such venues could operate to no more than 180 days a year and the county’s Board of Appeals could further reduce the allowed days of operation, county officials said.

County Permits and Inspections director Pat Conway was not a fan of the proposed legislation because of possible safety issues. His arguments held sway with Councilors Dan Schneckenburger (R-3) and George Patchell (R-4), who voted against writing a letter in support of the state legislation. Councilors Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2), Jackie Gregory (R-5) and Bob Meffley (R-1) supported the proposal.

Meffley noted that the historic Worsell Manor property near Warwick has had many “go-arounds” with the county over regulations and limitations on its operations.

In addition to weddings, usually hosted under tents on the property, the Worsell Manor site has become a treasured arts destination for the south county, hosting chamber music and other concerts in a fully renovated barn on the property. That’s right: CHAMBER MUSIC in southern Cecil County! But the county’s regulatory hurdles have limited how often such artistic evenings can be offered to area residents.

Council President Bowlsbey said she “strongly supported” Hershey’s bill, although she opined that while barn weddings are popular now, “The question is how long barn weddings are going to be in vogue.”

But chamber music concerts never go out of style. Perhaps even in Cecil County.

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ALAN McCARTHY for COUNTY EXEC

*THANK YOU, CECIL COUNTY VOTERS!

* I am grateful for your support and I heard your voices on issues that concern you. I will work hard to create jobs, expand economic development, back our law enforcement officers in the fight against crime and drugs, and support strong schools..

*We will work together to make Cecil County "The Best It Can Be."

(Auth: Friends of Alan McCarthy, Roger Owens, Treas.)

https://www.facebook.com/Dr-Alan-McCarthy-for-Cecil-County-Executive-1633697220231788/?fref=ts