KENNETH CITY — A standing-room-only crowd of 130-plus packed the Community Hall last Wednesday to learn more about a proposed rule to require businesses and residents to keep their property well-tended — inside and out.
Some did not want the proposal passed at all. Others wanted it passed, with less stringent standards and penalties. Still others thought it was fine just the way it was.
By the end of the evening, council members agreed to change some of the provisions, including removing the most controversial clause that would have allowed officials to enter homes and businesses if they had probable cause to think an owner was violating the rules.
The council caved to pressure after three hours. Before then, the scene was sometimes raucous as some audience members pleaded for quiet and others tussled with Kenneth City town attorney Paul Marino, who had written the proposed ordinance and was there to explain it. Here are some scenes from the evening.
A 'rude' start
Sniping began as soon as the meeting was called to order. Referring to an admonition by council member Al Carrier that people had better attend the workshop, a man called out, "Is this enough people for you, Mr. Carrier? I want to be sure." Marino commented: "Let me say it's unfortunate some people have to be rude in the presence of a large group of citizens here."
It's a response, he says
Marino sought to explain why the council wanted the rule: "For months, this City Council has had people come to this council at their regular council meetings and complain about the conditions of various homes in this community.
"Homes that were currently under foreclosure. Homes that were either rented and the owners were out of state. Homes where either the residents didn't have the wherewithal to keep their properties up or didn't really care.
"It was from those complaints of those people that this council asked me as the city, or town, attorney to take a look at what was needed in this town code to find what kind of remedial action could be taken in order to best protect the community as a whole against those entities and individuals who did not care about the condition of their property."
As Marino spoke, an audience member muttered, "Bull----."
Come sit closer
Shortly after, Marino and an audience member tangled over seating, which began when the man, from a seat in the back of the room, asked about a definition. Marino: "You want to come up here, state your name and ask your question, please? And if you, you seem to be one of the leaders here, so come up front and sit where you're close by."
When the man reached the microphone, Marino said, "You sit right there. ... There's a seat for you right there."
The man refused the front-row seat. A bit later, Marino began talking about the reaction of some property owners who were facing eviction and foreclosure: "Have you read or heard about the properties where they're being foreclosed and the people are so upset about their foreclosures that they are trashing the interior of those structures? They're ripping everything out. They're ripping the appliances out. They're ripping the utilities out. They're tearing out the walls. They're just that upset that their properties are being foreclosed and it's unfortunate that they got involved (in that) situation."
Audience members began shouting questions: "Is that happening in Kenneth City? Where?" Then the man: "Is there a provision to stop it in there? Is there a provision to stop what you've just said in this ordinance?"
Marino: "Let me, let me say this, sir. Let me say this. I wish you would come up here and sit up front instead of blurting out. The mayor and council are willing to listen to anyone, but we're going to do this in accordance with established parliamentary procedure ..."
Someone said something unintelligible. Marino raised his voice and repeated, "in accordance with established parliamentary procedure. And if you feel it's important to be totally rude to your, your fellow citizens and this council, you do so, but I'd like you to come up here and sit here where we can hear from you directly instead of from the back of the room."
The man never budged.
The economy and its effects were issues Marino referred to several times: "We're experiencing the worst level of home foreclosures and foreclosures on commercial property than we've ever seen in the history of this nation. … When those lending institutions take equitable title to those properties, that means that the owners have walked away and the properties are currently in a foreclosure mode. When those mortgage companies take equitable title, they are companies on the other side of the country, they're not local; we have difficulty contacting them with regard to the maintenance. We have difficulty even identifying provisions of our own town code that allow us to enforce certain problems that are identified in those deteriorated properties. And those mortgage companies simply do not, for the most part, care. They're more concerned about getting their money than they are anything else, let alone spending money to maintain these properties. ... Do y'all understand that this applies to both commercial buildings as well as residential? ...We want to make sure those don't turn into dumps."
In case anyone missed his point, Marino was clear: "This whole thing was designed to protect homeowners and renters and as I say, it was a vehicle against these mortgage companies primarily. ... There's no one here ... that wants to adversely impact on any person or any property owner here who makes a good faith effort to maintain their property, but we do want to focus on mortgage companies, absentee owners and others who don't care. That's essentially this whole thing in a nutshell."
A 'caring' council
Marino chided the crowd for being angry with council members: "Don't blame these folks up here for trying to do something right. ... We're not here to beat up on people, we're here to resolve an issue that faces this and every other community in this state. And you should really thank your council and your mayor for caring enough to want to do something about it. They could have laid back and did absolutely nothing and watched property after property deteriorate more and more."
Marino was also critical of the media coverage of the issue, calling it "somewhat skewed" and objecting to the reporting of terms such as Nazi and communistic that opponents had used to describe the proposal. He even recommended that the audience stop reading the St. Petersburg Times. At one point, someone called out, "First Amendment's a bitch, ain't it?" Marino responded by giving a speech about his admiration for the First Amendment.
One resident accused council members of using the proposal and its fines to raise money. Marino responded that code enforcement did not make money, but would cost the town money. As he spoke, a man in the back of the room said, "Wah, wah, wah, wah."