Saturday, February 14, 2009

Springfield City Council/City Officials Continue to Discuss Nuisance Property Issues (Part 1)

Springfield City Attorney Dan Wichmer and Springfield Prosecuting Attorney Johnnie Burgess began educating the City Council about the procedure undertaken when nuisance complaints are filed by local residents, at the Council's last luncheon.

Wichmer said the nuisance ordinance (ORD5465) adopted by the City Council in 2005, was based on a similar University City, Missouri ordinance, which allowed for a property being used for criminal activity to be closed for up to a year. The closure is accomplished by the City's legal ability to order utility service shut off to a property in violation of the nuisance ordinance but, no case in Springfield has ever risen to the point that such utility service shut off was ruled necessary.

According to Wichmer, Springfield's nuisance ordinance has been used two times on commercial businesses and 15 times in residential settings.

Once the police department notifies the law department of frequent complaints on a particular property, an active file is kept on the property and a determination is made as to whether a "nuisance letter" should be delivered. If a letter is delivered, Wichmer said he and the Police Chief, personally, deliver it so, there is no question it has been properly served and a legally compliant court case may be built.

"When we have had these meetings (with property owners or managers) it has been successful," Wichmer said.

He said there has been cooperation, and troublesome tenants have been kicked out by the property owner or manager when such cases have arisen in the past. While there may be ongoing incidents and several months may pass between the time of a letter delivery and remedy, "In the end, they (nuisance violations) are being corrected," Wichmer reported.

When asked by Councilwoman Rushefsky about repeating problems in a complex, even though the occupants of any given complex had changed, Wichmer responded, "To my knowledge we have not had that come up."

While this might, at first blush, appear to contradict past news stories that there have been repeated complaints filed against certain apartment complexes, Wichmer had earlier noted that the ordinance is only violated when there is commission of crime and conviction of same. It is the same reason given at a meeting, in early December, between residents and property owners of the West Central area and City officials, when a frustrated real estate investor and re-developer, Carol Nachbar, complained about non-enforcement of the ordinance:

"According to City Attorney Dan Wichmer, as long as a landlord is working with the police department and there are no convictions, there is little the city can do under the ordinance." (See CFP cover story, December 17, 2008 issue).

Returning to last Tuesday's luncheon (February 10), Councilwoman Cindy Rushefsky wondered how many of the property owners owned multiple rental properties. Springfield Prosecutor Burgess didn't have a statistic but, he said many own multiple properties, some between 50 and 100.

Councilman John Wylie raised a question about some sort of City mandated, tenant registration for utility services in rental properties. At issue was the possible benefit such tracking of services could be for landlord screening of tenants.

According to local rental property owner Sherry Byrne, anything the City could do to help track problematic tenants who shift from one rental to the next would be welcome, "I'd be all in favor of that," Byrne said, though she expressed concern about the creation of more "red tape" for landlords.

Byrne owns 26 rental properties in Springfield. Being a landlord is not without it's own set of frustrations, she said. Byrne wishes there was more good will toward landlords.

"I try to come in and do something corrective and I get called on," she said, as she described getting reported by neighbors last week because a car was pulled up on the curb in front of a rental property she is improving. Now, she complains, a homeowner on the same street has a similar vehicle parked on the curb but, it appears nothing is being done and no homeowner in the area has filed a similar complaint against the neighboring property.

"It's the homeowner that doesn't get enforced," Byrne continued, "Clutter and junk and fire hazards, I come in and start to clean (the neighborhood) up and I get called on. There are so many rules and regulations applied to landlords, if they were applied to home owners, the City would look a lot better."

Byrne was concerned there is not enough good will on the part of residents or City officials toward landlords who work very hard to improve properties in the older sections of town. She felt, oftentimes, law enforcement turns the other way when re-developers and landlords need support and are working conscientiously to try to benefit the neighborhoods where they own properties.

According to prosecuting attorney Burgess once a summons is issued on a property, a report is submitted to him; the report is reviewed within, approximately, 5 days and a charging decision is made. Then, there are two options, the case may be filed with the court or the case may be declined for lack of evidence. If filed with the court, the defendant appears for arraignment and enters a plea.

If the defendant pleads not guilty, he or she is given the option of a trial, which is scheduled within 4 to 6 weeks, or meeting with the prosecutor. Burgess said if a meeting with the prosecutor is chosen, such a meeting often happens the same day and, much of the time, will take place in the hallway on the way out of the building. They discuss how to abate the nuisance without the necessity of a trial and the defendant is given 1 to 2 weeks to correct the problem and then enter a plea agreement.

If the defendant pleads guilty, the prosecuting attorney makes a sentencing recommendation based on information that has been provided by an inspector. Often the penalty is suspended upon the condition the nuisance is abated by a date certain, usually 10 days from the date of arraignment.

According to the City's Nuisance Ordinance, a public nuisance is:

"Any place that is used for the commission of crimes, ordinance violations, or acts done, permitted, allowed or continued to the damage or injury of any of the inhabitants of the city after notice is given and the place continues to be used for the commission of crimes, ordinance violations, or acts done, permitted, allowed or continued to the damage or injury of any inhabitants of the city is a public nuisance." - Section 74-392. A, General Ordinance Number 5465.

At the next Council luncheon, scheduled for February 17, the tentative agenda includes a follow up discussion of nuisance issues. The tentative speakers who will address the Council on the topic will be Director of Building Development Services Nick Heatherly, City Attorney Dan Wichmer, Municipal Prosecuting Attorney Johnnie Burgess and Citizen Service Coordinator Claudia Crighton.

The luncheon meeting will be held at noon in the 4th floor conference room at the Busch Municipal building. The meeting is open to the public.


No comments: