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Debate continues on response costs

December 12, 2011

NARRAGANSETT—The town council held a motion to adopt the recently proposed ordinance which would allow the town to recoup ‘response’ costs at homes which police have engaged in multiple disturbances. Members of the public and representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were on hand Monday evening to express their support and reservations regarding the language and potential implementation of the ordinance.

Every year, Narragansett is faced with neighborhood disturbances associated with student or summer rental properties, from loud parties to illegal parking and destruction of property. The costs to mitigate such issues are not insignificant, and the town has identified a desire on the part of residents and its own to try and recoup the response costs for such incidents.

“This [ordinance] is one of many tools discussed months ago, trying to tackle all the issues of concerns about neighborhoods and disturbances during the school year,” said Town Manager Grady Miller last month. “We have looked at how other communities have dealt with similar disturbance issues, and it is a way of recovering costs of police response for noise.”

The ACLU sent a letter to the town criticizing its proposed ordinance, citing that the vague language put forth in the town’s ordinance regarding terms such as ‘disturbance’ and ‘responsible party’ is too broad and police officers would have a significant amount of discretion when deciding what constitutes both definitions. The ACLU also found the ordinance to be unfair to the citizens of Narragansett who, as the already pay for municipal services such as police response through taxes, would be charged undefined amounts in fees if they caused a disturbance.

“We’re very concerned how broad this ordinance is as the terms are so vague,” said Jeff Palish, Attorney for the ACLU. “I think there are concerns about the police having total discretion to give warnings, also. What standards do the police use? How do the citizens know what standards they need to follow?”

“Also, will a neighbor call to the detriment of another neighbor?” he added. “Some people may use this ordinance inappropriately, and I think the town council needs to think through this and the consequences with further thought and public hearings.”

Members of the town council individually expressed their opinions on whether or not the ordinance should be approved.

“I don’t think anyone has an objection to the concept and the police know where the problems are, but we are talking about joint liability, and that is pretty scary stuff,” said Councilman Christopher Wilkens. “If a police officer comes to your house a second time, you are liable for any injuries. That’s an unending legal fight which potentially any homeowner is liable for.”

“The more I read this thing, the more issues come up,” he added. “In my mind, I see it as a net cast quite widely, and I can see innocent parties getting caught up in it.”

“We’ve looked at the thing over and over again,” said Councilman David Crook. “I don’t have a problem with this, but changing it again, I don’t know.”

“I worry about the ordinance being too specific, and I would never want to handicap ourselves if a situation becomes worse than we anticipate,” said Town Council President Glenna Hagopian.

Narragansett Police Chief Dean Hoxsie and Town Solicitor Mark McSally were on hand to address the questions of the town council and public, assuring that the ordinance would be administered as even-handedly as possible. McSally also provided information on the genesis of the ordinance, which has been worked on at various times for the past 18 months.

“This was not intended to be aimed at the person having a cookout in their backyard, but for the continuous problems,” said Hoxsie. “There are people who manage their properties who just don’t get it and have multiple disturbances in a year. I think we are very judicious in how we administer the orange stickers, by which there is a follow up with renters and vetting and appeals process.”

“Amherst, Massachusetts uses the same procedure, and there are a lot of communities that use the same type of cost recovery,” he added. “For an average party, you might have four officers. I think you’re looking at 400 or 500 dollars, and that is probably a high-end cost.”

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and we heard the same from the ACLU with the orange sticker case a few years back,” said Town Solicitor Mark McSally. “This ordinance is based upon models from throughout the country mandating response costs. The language used comes from a combination of a number of different ordinances provide by my own research, and that of the public and police department.”

“Generally, the concept of response costs is defensible,” he added. “I can’t guarantee a result but that is my belief.”

Members of the public attended Monday evening to express their support and opposition to the ordinance. Those in favor of the recovery of response costs cited the chronic issues neighborhoods such as Eastward Look have experienced with student and summer renters who disregard the property and living area of local residents.

“For the 20 to 25 years I’ve been in town, our lives have been made intolerable,” said resident Carol Stuart. “We have to envision people who are half naked running around, urinating and screaming obscenities, and we looked for any help to get.”

“No town should put up what with what we have,” she added. “We are looking for a solution and we have a legal council who seems to think it is.”

Others expressed deep concerns for the negative impacts of the ordinance, including the possibility of driving business out of Narragansett along with student and summer renters.

“Just because these ordinances exist in other communities, doesn’t mean they are fair and right for Narragansett,” said one resident. ” The bottom line is we are all paying taxes for public services, and to re-impose that cost on a single individual is absurd. [Rentals] are a problem, but political expediency is no reason to impose these huge liabilities on homeowners. It doesn’t matter what the intent is, it is how it is carried out.”

“I understand why you would come up with the ordinance and I can’t say the idea of it is bad, but I think in the future as these things come up, you don’t want to put the town out of business,” said Jim Durkin. “Students should be thought of as tourists. They come for a short period of time and leave. Some are problems and some are not.”

The vague language of the ordinance was also cited by residents as a potential pitfall which could cost property owners an inordinate amount of money in fees which are not clearly defined in the town’s legislation. Under the ordinance, warning could be given out by a police officer orally or written, which may cause legal problems in terms of identifying the actual violators on scene. The ordinance has the potential to furthermore deter domestic violence victims from calling the police for fear of punitive fees.

“Conjecture on the part of those creating the ordinance and legislative intent makes for bad law, and the response costs are completely un-delineated and undefined,” said Meg Rogers of 68 Earls Court. “This council is not able to define what these costs will be to the average citizen, and they can be applied to any citizen in this community.”

“We are concerned that certain undefined parts of the proposed ordinance will have inadvertent consequences for domestic violence victims,” said Rachel Orsinger of the Rhode Island Coalition of Domestic Violence. “They may fear to call police when they need to, and we worry that our police officers will lose the trust about getting a victim to say that they need help and get out. “

“Domestic violence is a continual cycle and problem, and these aren’t one or two calls,” she added. “The fact that they occur might prevent a murder later on.”

The town council ultimately passed the motion four to one with three amendments; that the oral warning be changed to written only, the definition of ‘disturbance’ be attached to that in the town’s existing public nuisance ordinance, and that violators receive 30 days appeal time instead of 14 as it is written in the proposed ordinance. The town council will also hold a meeting next month to discuss the possible imposition of a cap on fines incurred through the recovery costs ordinance.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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