Cecil Co Exec Pulls ‘Nuisance’ Property Bill as Landlords Object; McCarthy Calls Poorly Drafted Bill an ‘Embarrassment’
Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy has withdrawn a proposed â€ścriminal nuisanceâ€ť ordinance, aimed at cleaning up run-down properties and removing criminal tenants in some communities, after landlords highlighted flaws in the bill and potential conflicts with state landlord-tenant law during a public hearing. But McCarthy said a key factor in his decision was the â€śtotal embarrassmentâ€ť of the poorly drafted bill offered by county staff.
McCarthy, who attended the hearing during the Tuesday (3/21/2017) County Council evening meeting, told Cecil Times the landlords correctly cited multiple legal holes in the bill, which he called â€śa total embarrassment,â€ť and said he agreed with their objections. The bill was drafted by County Attorney Jason Allison, who acknowledged during the hearing that the initial bill released to the public and the Council several weeks ago failed to provide a legal definition of â€ścriminal nuisance.â€ť The definition was added later, but some witnesses at the hearing said they had not seen a revised version.
â€śThatâ€™s my fault,â€ť Allison admitted about the omitted legal definition. Allison also got into a debate with one speaker at the public hearing, telling Pat Ullrich, a local landlord and real estate business operator, that there was no reason that he should have consulted with the state Attorney General about possible conflicts with state law in the ordinance: â€śThe Attorney General is a lawyer just like I am; why would I ask him?â€ť
At that point, County Director of Administration Al Wein interjected that the hearing was supposed to be â€śan opportunity for public comment,â€ť not a back and forth argument between county officials and the public. â€śAbsolutely right,â€ť commented County Council President Joyce Bowlsbey
In a statement announcing the decision on Wednesday to withdraw the bill, the county administration stated: â€śDuring public hearing, a group of local landlords and the Cecil County Landlordâ€™s Association unequivocally expressed their opposition to the proposed criminal nuisance abatement ordinance, while community support for the ordinance was largely absent from the hearing.â€ť And the comments at the hearing â€śclearly demonstrate that the public disfavors this Bill.â€ť As a result, the bill was withdrawn and the issue will be sent back to the drawing board for review with input from landlords and others affected by the proposal.
McCarthy told CECIL TIMES that his staff had advised him that there were â€śno problemsâ€ť with affected parties on the proposal before the hearing. But that was clearly not the case.
Norman Wehner, a landlord, property manager and President of the Cecil County Landlords Association, testified that â€śI think thereâ€™s a lot of holes In it.â€ť He said he was â€śnot opposed to the idea of it,â€ť to crack down on problem landlords and tenants, but the bill as written â€śis not even close yetâ€ť to producing a workable plan under landlord-tenant law.
A key issue is the billâ€™s timeframe of 10 days from a county notice of â€ścriminal nuisanceâ€ť activities at a property– such as drug-dealing–in which a property owner is supposed to take corrective action, and state law rules for a minimum of 30 daysâ€™ notice to serve an eviction document on a tenant, and from 45 to 60 days before a court would give a landlord authority to remove a tenant. And the proposal implied that landlords should be held accountable for â€śallegedâ€ť criminal activity by tenants who might not have been convicted in a court of law, leaving landlords potentially liable for lawsuits by tenants not found guilty of criminal activities.
In an interview with CECIL TIMES, Wehner said that no one from the county administration, from McCarthy to senior administration officials, talked with him or any of the Board members of the Landlords Association before the bill was introduced. McCarthy, who owns several rental properties himself, said he was sorry that no such county contact was made but he thought that staff had done so.
The bill was aimed at cleaning up properties that have fallen into disrepair and to combat drug dealing and crime by tenants. The resolution provided 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 â€śclosing orderâ€ť 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 oversee a property.
[SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2017/02/cecil-chatter-county-council-considers-crime-cluster-crackdown-ready-for-their-close-ups-barn-brides-brouhaha/ ]
Although no community was specifically mentioned in the legislation, it was clearly aimed at the Lakeside trailer park, which has for decades been a crime and health/safety problem in the county. Complicating the matter is that the trailers sit on land owned by private landlords, who then rent out the trailers to tenants.
Robin Ball, president of the Lakeside Community Association for the past 18 years, was the only witness to testify in favor of the legislation at the public hearing. She said that many law-abiding residents, especially seniors, are â€śscared to deathâ€ť to step out of their homes due to crime and drug-dealing and drug usage in the community. She said she and other association members have been working with the county for years to try to clean up the problems but their hopes have been dashed repeatedly. She saw the legislation as the last hope for many residents. But she was the only witness to support the legislation, and no other Lakeside residents appeared at the hearing..
The legislation was also drafted in concerted consultation with the county Sheriffâ€™s Department, but no one from that agency appeared at the hearing to support the bill.
Former Cecil County Council President Robert Hodge, who is a landlord in the county, testified at the hearing that he was particularly concerned that the legislation did not receive a review by â€śstakeholdersâ€ť affected by it, such as landlords. He said the proposal amounted to a â€śshort circuitâ€ť around other laws governing landlord/tenant relations.
Hodge, who repeatedly initiated cuts in the budget of the county Sheriffâ€™s Department as a county Commissioner and Councilor, observed, â€śWhere the hell is the Sheriffâ€™s Department if there is criminal activityâ€ť in a community. Hodge, and other landlords, emphasized that they are not â€ścopsâ€ť responsible for policing the conduct of tenants if they break the law.
Hodge said a better way to address problems would be to use code enforcement and health regulations to â€śharassâ€ť bad landlords who do not keep their properties up to health and safety standards. â€śWe drive them out of businessâ€ť if landlords do not keep their properties up to codes, he said.
In an interview with CECIL TIMES, Hodge noted that Lakeside was in his former District 5 Council/Commissioner district and that he had attended multiple meetings on how to combat the crime and drug problems in the community. He said he believes the only way to resolve the problems is to have a â€śconcerted and consistentâ€ť campaign on site by county code enforcement, health department, and law enforcement officials to crack down on derelict properties that violate health and safety laws and tenants who break criminal laws.
â€śWe have been lax in enforcing current laws and regulations,â€ť Hodge said.