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Public Nuisance Measure Passes

Photo by Eric Ayres Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger discusses concerns over amendments to the city’s public nuisance ordinance during Tuesday’s city council meeting.

WHEELING — Officials in the city of Wheeling by a split vote Tuesday approved an amendment to the city’s drug house ordinance, but not before a volley of debate and disagreement over the issue.

The tweak to the city’s language in the codified ordinances pertaining to public nuisance properties will basically require the city to notify landlords before they are summoned to court on action against tenants accused of illegal drug activity.

Members of Wheeling City Council were set to hold a second reading on the proposed public nuisance amendment last month. However, officials tabled the reading and final vote on the legislation at that time. The ordinance reappeared on the agenda during Tuesday’s council meeting, when Councilman Dave Palmer requested that Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger step forward to express his concerns about the amendments and the effects they would have on the police department.

“I first heard about this proposed change when I read it in the newspaper,” Schwertfeger said. “I immediately had some concerns.”

The police chief said his department has filed between 15-20 abatements under the current public nuisance ordinance.

“The program has been extremely successful,” he said. “I don’t believe this body understands how well we have worked with the landlords in helping them abate these properties.”

Schwertfeger said he personally has attended several of the related court hearings, adding that he was not aware of a single fine leveled against any landlord. The only cost he has seen landlords incur as part of these actions has been in the cases where a landlord chooses to retain legal counsel.

If police were required to inform the landlords of certain situations in advance, it could jeopardize ongoing drug investigations, the chief noted.

“It’s foreign to me to be required to notify anyone of a pending or, even in some cases, a complex drug investigation,” he said. “It is not certainly a common practice for the police department to provide a heads-up.”

The chief indicated that if police did contact a landlord in a case where the abatement involved an eviction, they would have to show cause in order to obtain an eviction.

“That would require me to provide that landlord or that property owner sensitive information, which I’m not comfortable with,” Schwertfeger said.

According to the chief, the original public nuisance ordinance provides police with an additional tool to help clean up drug houses and nuisance properties, and it has been very successful.

“This amendment flies in the face of that,” he said, adding that the amendment raises other questions under certain scenarios — including situations in which the property owner may actually be involved in a criminal enterprise at the site in question.

“The system is working fine,” Schwertfeger said. “Amendments are not necessary. If anything, we have improved relationships with landlords.”

Good landlords often know what is happening on their properties, according to the police chief, who indicated that abatements can occur if landlords take proactive measures on their end to prevent illegal drug activities from taking root on their properties.

“We’re not out to get landlords,” the chief said, noting that a requirement to notify them before police take action on a public nuisance property could hurt an investigation, delay the process or cause police to have to provide sensitive information.

“I think our good citizens deserve better,” Schwertgfeger said.

Councilman Jerry Sklavounakis, an attorney by trade, brought the issue forward to city council through the Rules Committee of Council earlier this fall. The action was expected to give landlords means and motivation to evict problem tenants before the landlords themselves end up in court over certain situations, and Sklavounakis described the action as being “consistent with the doctrine of fairness.”

According to language in the amendment, “No such action may be brought in Wheeling Municipal Court without a certification that non-judicial efforts were attempted to resolve the alleged public nuisance without success.”

“All we’re trying to do — before someone from the city of Wheeling files a summons to bring a landlord into court — we tell them there is a problem before we do that,” Sklavounakis said Tuesday. “I just don’t think it’s fair of us to hold landlords’ feet to the fire when it’s a third party committing these crimes.”

The amendment was written very broadly in order to give the city latitude in certain situations, the councilman noted, adding that when a landlord receives a summons to go to court because of illegal drug activity, it’s often a “shock” to them.

“I think that we should provide notice to landlords before we send them a summons for a third party’s bad acts and let them know there’s a problem,” Sklavounakis said.

The chief indicated that a tenant cannot be evicted without cause, and typically in these types of cases, cause is not even alleged until charges are filed on a case.

In light of the lengthy discussion over the matter, Palmer moved to table the ordinance again for further discussion and possible modification. The motion died for a lack of a second, and council members voted 6-1 to approve the amendment, with Palmer casting the lone vote in opposition. City leaders on either side of the issue stated that they understood but respectfully disagreed with the opposing viewpoint.

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