Nuisance ordinance rejected

90 crowd council chambers; vote unanimous not to proceed
Reporter Editor

Council crowd lined up ‘out the door’. Council crowd lined up ‘out the door’. Last month the Rockdale City Council pleaded for “public input” on its proposed controversial comprehensive nuisance ordinance.

Monday evening they got it.

Ninety people packed into the council chambers at City Hall in a virtually unanimous show of opposition to the plan. Nineteen persons spoke out in a public hearing, all of them against the ordinance in tones ranging from worried to confrontational.

The council got the message. The ordinance was rejected on a unanimous vote to proceed “no further” and members committed to go in a new direction in their efforts to clean up Rockdale and to involve the community at every step.

Mayor Larry Jones opened the hearing with the words “I think the council has a good sense of the feeling of the community” and over the next 45 minutes the part of the community crowded into chairs, sitting on the floor and lining up in hallways, even outside the door onto the sidewalk, left no doubt about their opinions.

Part of the crowd of 90 which packed the council chambers at City Hall, the largest turnout for a council session in many years. 
Reporter/Mike Brown Part of the crowd of 90 which packed the council chambers at City Hall, the largest turnout for a council session in many years. Reporter/Mike Brown RETALIATION’—Opponents of the far-reaching and detailed ordinance had voiced concerns about “unintended consequences,” intrusion into private property rights and its “complaint driven” nature.

Mayoral candidate John King opposed the ordinance, saying he believed “the city doesn’t abide by it, so the council shouldn’t expect the community to.”

“This will pit neighbor against neighbor, citizen against citizen,” he said.

Leah Thomason also cited the complaint driven aspect of the proposed ordinance. “People will use this for retaliation,” she said.

Roy Perrard questioned the authority of the city to compel citizens to make changes on their own land. “You’re going to try and tell me what I can and can’t do with my own property?” he asked.

Perrard said he wasn’t against efforts to clean up Rockdale. “I like things pretty,” he said. “But this is going too far.”

Michelle Wolf told the council the ordinance was reminiscent of planned communities. “We don’t want to be a planned community,” she said. “This makes me want to leave (Rockdale).”

Former council member J. T. Talley said he opposed the ordinance but suggested other efforts to improve the appearance of the city.

“We need a place for the trash to go,” he said. Talley suggested organizing volunteers to spruce up the city and its neigh- borhoods instead of a nuisance ordinance.

There were a variety of other comments expressed, ranging from concerns over being able to work on vehicles in a resident’s own driveway to beliefs that problems addressed in the ordinance are already covered in state law to “this isn’t Dallas!”

‘COMMON SENSE’— City Manager Kelvin Knauf said he didn’t believe the ordinance would be enforced as strictly as some of its opponents feared.

“There would be a great deal of common sense involved,” he said. “We wouldn’t be going around with a ruler measuring the height of your grass.”

“We’re not heartless. This isn’t about going out and seeing how many people we can prosecute,” he said. “We just want people to pick up their yards.”

City Attorney Michelle Lehmkuhl told The Reporter that she did not write the ordinance, that the document was prepared by an Austin law firm.

She said one reason for preparing a specific ordinance was to have an ordinance that could be enforced in a court of law.

“In the three or four years I’ve been city attorney I have never gone to court for an ordinance violation,” she said.

Monday following the public hearing, she told the crowd that presently Rockdale only has ordinances covering junked vehicles and high weeds and grass.

CONCERNS—Knauf’s recommendation was that the council review the ordinance again, eliminate areas where there were concerns, list 10 or so areas that met their expectations and bring the revised ordinance back to the May council session.

But council member Joyce Dalley made a motion that the ordinance “proceed no further.”

She thanked those in the room for attending and asked if the city could do something to change the “horrible perception” that its acts “pertain to the city and not to its residents.”

Dalley’s motion also called for a council workshop with city staffers to “try and change this perception that the city has a lack of concern.”

Council member Melody Dawson seconded the motion, which passed on a 6-0 vote with Toby Johnson, Colby Fisher, Doug Calame and Willie Phillips also voting in favor.

Dalley invited the public to the workshop. “We’re going to need your input,” she said.

Johnson agreed. “I hope you will all participate in these workshops and openly discuss things that maybe you don’t feel like the city should be doing,” she said.

“You are the city and your opinion should be highly valued. We need you at these workshops so we can know how you feel and what your perceptions might be,” Johnson said.

CLEANUP—The council also discussed ways to clean up yards and other areas of the city without resorting to the comprehensive nuisance ordinance which had just gone down.

Calame pointed out the success of Rockdale’s twice-yearly Stash Your Trash events, in which residents of the city may bring items—including brush and limbs— to Fair Park for disposal.

“Could we have these more often?” he asked. “Maybe quarterly. Also, I think Mr. Talley’s comment about volunteers is a good idea.”

Johnson noted that council members have previously organized volunteers to help clean up areas around the city.

Phillips said he has dealt extensively with Burleson County which has a different approach.

“They’ve got dump stations around the county outside of the towns,” he said. “People can buy a license for $25 a year and then they can dump every day if they want to. I’d like to see us try something like that.”

FIRE EXITS—Before the discussion, Knauf referenced a pair of on-line polls, one on the city website and the other on The Rockdale Reporter website, which indicated substantial opposition to the nuisance ordinance.

Both polls were “unscientific” and were not designed to be precise gauges of public opinion.

Knauf said the original impetus for a comprehensive nuisance ordinance came years ago from a previous city attorney.

The council first considered such an ordinance in June, 2011. The ordinance was almost voted on last month before the council decided to wait until April.

In an unprecedented move at a meeting for the City Hall council chambers, due to the overflow crowd, councilman Calame, before the session began, pointed out the three emergency fire exits from the crowded room in case an emergency should arise during the meeting.

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