NEW CUMBERLAND - A divided New Cumberland City Council approved a revision to the city's nuisance ordinance Monday that adds jail time to the list of possible consequences for owning a nuisance property.
Council approved the revision by a vote of 2-1. Council members Miriam Hess and Shawn Marks voted for the amendment, and Councilman Pat Jones voted against it. Council members Judith Bartley and Brian Webster abstained.
Councilman Will White was absent from Monday's meeting.
The amendment calls for up to two days in jail for first-time offenders, up to five days in jail for two-time offenders and up to 30 days in jail for repeat offenders. Violators also can be fined $100 for every 48 hours that the nuisance exists.
City officials hope that increasing the penalties will improve enforcement of the nuisance law and, by extension, improve the city's appearance and economic development prospects.
Mayor Linda McNeil noted that several property owners have been cited for unkempt properties since New Cumberland held a citywide cleanup in April but that, in some cases, the citations have not been enough to improve compliance with the law.
McNeil said the city's nuisance law, which originally was passed in 1990, needed more teeth.
"We're elected to take care of the town, and this ordinance, the way it's currently written, doesn't get the job done," she said.
But council members debated everything from the definition of a nuisance and to whether enforcement of the ordinance will be too subjective.
"People are worried that the mayor or chief of police will rush to them if they don't like something in your yard," Bartley said.
Hess said the law's phrase "annoying to the public" is vague and requires a more specific definition.
"It behooves us to look at what defines a nuisance and to take a hard look at the nuisance ordinance," Hess said.
Jones said the final determination for what constitutes a nuisance should be made by council.
But City Solicitor Kevin Pearl said that would violate the Constitution's separation of powers. It's council's job to legislate, not to enforce the law, he said.
"It does not work that way in this country. You can't rewrite the Constitution," Pearl said.
Pearl noted that the New Cumberland statute, which is similar to nuisance laws in Wheeling and Weirton, has built-in protections and that the police department and the city court judge have discretion as to who is cited and how much they are penalized.
"There is significant due process built into the ordinance," he said, noting that a conviction in city court can be appealed to Hancock County Circuit Court within 20 days.
McNeil said there's nothing vague about the nuisance law because it contains nine specific provisions under which someone can be cited.
"I feel a great obligation to the people who take care of their property, who have to live beside people who don't - and who have repeatedly ignored the attempts of the city to help them," McNeil said.