ASHLAND The Ashland City Commission passed the first reading of a resurrected public nuisance ordinance, 3-1, after a lively discussion on Thursday.

The commission briefly took up the measure last year, but killed it for a lack of a second. A bill requiring the registration of owners and managers of rental properties with the city — making it easier to give notice to property owners not only for the proposed public nuisance ordinance and code violation — was also DOA last year.

A public nuisance ordinance would work like this: if a serious criminal activity, such as drug trafficking, prostitution, gambling or assaults occur three times within 120 days or six times in a year at a rental property, then the landlord would be given a notice to sit down with the Chief of Police to come up with a solution.

If a solution is reached, a contract would be written up for “the abatement of the nuisance,” which could include eviction of the present tenant, bringing in police for property inspections or implementing tighter screening processes.

If the landlord doesn’t reply in seven days, then the chief can take the issue to the City Attorney, who could take it to civil court. There, fines of up to $500 a day and injunctions could be sought. If the landlord feels like they’re getting a raw deal, they can use a defense that they had no material knowledge of what was happening at the property — it would be on the city to prove otherwise.

The ordinance would not apply to calls involving domestic violence, which City Attorney Jim Moore said could “produce a chilling effect due to fear of eviction” for victims calling in those incidents.

Both bills were motioned to the floor by Commissioner Marty Gute, who has stated publicly he has supported the measures. Then-Mayor Steve Gilmore also voiced support for the ordinance, telling the commission “you can’t put your head in the sand on these problems.”

At the time, then Commissioner Pat Steen was completely silent on the issue, not weighing in at all or asking questions. Then-Commissioner, now Mayor, Matthew B. Perkins at first questioned how the ordinance would escalate during an April 2020 meeting wherein Moore informed the commission of the legislation, but seemed satisfied when it was explained that the chief would be working with the landlord on the issue.

During that same meeting, Commissioner Amanda Clark expressed concerns about evicting tenants only to have them go elsewhere to cause problems, or join the homeless population in town. When Moore gave an example of having police come in during property inspections, Clark commented that it would be overreach.

“What’s the domino effect?” she said.

When Steen, Perkins and Clark did not second Gute’s motion at a May 2020 meeting, only Clark outlined her reasoning — she stated that at that moment, with a statewide moratorium on evictions due to COVID-19, landlords didn’t have the proper tools to remedy ongoing issues.

At Thursday’s meeting, the same exact set of ordinances was again proposed to the Commission.

This time, Clark altered her stance a third time, expressing concerns about whether the police force had the manpower to enforce the ordinance. Chief Todd Kelley said they did.

Clark again expressed concerns about the government getting involved with people’s properties, but stated, “police need the tools to deal with these chronic problems.”

Clark ultimately put in a vote in support of the measure, stating she believed this version of the ordinance had “stronger definitions of what constituted a nuisance and abatement.” However, as noted before, it was the same ordinance presented a year ago.

Gute, who has always supported the ordinance, said he understands the tool would only be used with landlords who are willfully neglectful of what occurs on their property.

“It’s only a small percentage of the landlords in the city,” Gute said. “I believe most landlords are responsible with how they rent in this city.”

Commissioner Cheryl Spriggs asked a few questions to the chief about whether it was mostly absentee landlords or ones in the community. Kelley replied that it’s a mix. She asked if there procedures in place to track this, which Kelley said the department has computer systems in place that have the problem residents marked.

Spriggs cast her vote in favor of the measure.

Blanton, the lone dissenting vote, questioned bothMoore and the chief about what constitutes proof.

“When we’re talking about property ownership, my burden of proof goes very high,” he said. “I know in Lexington, their ordinance requires an arrest. I know it’s not just 9-1-1 calls here, but what is the determination made?”

The determination is evidence of the activity as determined by the police, Moore replied.

Blanton also wondered if ownership changes would wipe the slate clean — if the property is sold with five calls in a year and a new owner gets call No. 6, what happens? Moore said the number of incidents probably wouldn’t go away, but it would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Having lived in “less than well-run” housing in past, Blanton said he felt like “there’s a lot of gray area.”

“If someone calls for an injury, that makes sense,” Blanton said. “But a lot of times in low-income living situations, it isn’t cut and dried. There’s gray area. I’m concerned that this could have some consequences we didn’t think of.”

In regards to the rental property registration ordinance, Blanton expressed dismay that “it was one more thing for property owners to have to do in the city.” He said if it were to go through, he would like to have a formal report on the program.

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