At the beginning of what was expected to be a contentious debate at the Hawesville City Council meeting over an ordinance to force landlords to pay tenants’ old debts, mayor Charles King announced there’d be no public comments allowed and that the ordinance wouldn’t be brought to a vote, although the debate then shifted to the rights of the public to speak and what should be done instead about delinquent bills. The council also passed an ordinance raising water deposits and connection fees, which King said would take care of much of the problem.
During its January meeting the council had held the first reading of an ordinance that would allow the city to require landlords to pay for unpaid utility bills left when tenants simply skipped town, and after a canceled meeting last week, several citizen property owners attended Tuesday’s meeting to be there for the second reading and the council’s vote.
But King began by ordering no comments and pulling the ordinance from discussion.
“Now what we’re not going to do this afternoon is we’re not going to take any comments from the floor, OK,” King said. “And I really mean that so if you decide not to abide by that we’ll have to deal with it.”
He also said the ordinance at least some in the audience were there to talk about, was being pulled from consideration.“So there’ll be no vote on that,” he said. “And I thank you guys for coming, all of you.”
As he shifted to the next point on the agenda, councilman Justin Nugent brought it back to the now dead ordinance.
“Council’s not even allowed to discuss it?” Nugent asked.
“Yeah, you can always discuss it. I can’t keep you from it,” said King.
Councilman Danny Doyle said he thought the attendees should be able to discuss it too.
“I don’t see how you can keep anybody from discussing it,” he said. “It’s a human violation and it’s a civil rights violation. This is a public meeting. You cannot deny someone not to be able to speak on that issue… I’ve been here 23 years and that’s the first time that I’ve ever heard that.”
“Well the law’s changed,” said King. “It’s changed. We can do that.”
Doyle asked the city attorney, Charles Mattingly, if he could explain how the public could be barred from speaking at the meeting. “Mayors can put requirements on how the meeting is conducted,” Mattingly said. “He can limit how many can talk, he can say nobody can talk. He can legally do that at a city council meeting.”
A call Wednesday morning to attorney Michael Abate, from Kaplan Johnson Abate & Bird LLP confirmed that city councils do not in fact have to allow public comment.
“The state open meetings law does not require agencies to allow public comment and therefore no individual has the right to demand it,” Abate said.
Later in Tuesday’s meeting the council held the second reading and passed Ordinance 01-21, raising the fees for water connections and increasing water deposits.
Deposits for rental units increase from $100 up to $200, new homeowners’ deposits go from zero up to $150, and connection activation fees increase from $35 to $50.
The ordinance passed 3-2, with Nugent and Doyle both voting no.
At the end of the meeting, discussion turned again to the ordinance, with councilman Pat “Junnie” Morris addressing the residents who’d attended.
“I want you to know that it wasn’t something that we were trying to put extra burden on you all,” he said. “There was real concern about doing it either way.”
Councilman Wayne Herndon pointed out that with the ordinance dead, the city is still left with the same problem it had before, of being left with unpaid bills.
“I have one comment,” he said. “I was elected to represent the people of Hawesville. So I’m going to tell the people of Hawesville that if these people don’t pay a water bill that I’m going to expect them to chip in and pay. That’s exactly what you’re saying.”
Nugent asked why the city couldn’t do a credit check on people signing up for water and make an ordinance charging a higher deposit for those with bad credit, and Julie Vogt, who attended and owns Windward Heights Apartments, asked why the city couldn’t require a letter of portability showing they’ve paid their last utility.
King said the onus should be on the landlord and that whether other methods might work, the proposed ordinance would have worked too and it had been tested in the courts as enforceable.
But he added that the other ordinance the council had just passed, which raised water deposits on renters, would more than likely prevent most problems in the future.
“With the onset of raising this deposit, and if we cut these people’s water off, generally there won’t be a balance, unless they’ve had some kind of terrible leak on your side,” he said.
By Dave Taylor