KENNETH CITY — Throughout the years, this town has seen some pretty contentious council meetings, but until last Wednesday police had ordered few, if any, residents to leave like they did during a heated confrontation over a proposed building ordinance.
Mark Heidt had to be escorted out after getting into a spat with the council and town attorney over a proposal to require property owners to keep their homes and businesses in good repair — both inside and out.
Kenneth City council members sat impassively as Heidt left the meeting tailed by the police chief and one officer. As he left, Heidt called out, "I'm willing to be the martyr."
Mayor Muriel Whitman's response: "Let's resume our meeting now."
The confrontation between Heidt and the council began when he stepped up to the microphone to speak against passage of the building ordinance. Rather than facing the council members, he turned his back to them to address the crowd. When told he must face the council, Heidt replied, "You cannot tell me how to address the board."
Heidt also tried to rally the crowd to demand that the council hold another workshop to discuss the ordinance. He made a motion and asked for a show of hands from audience members who supported him. When it became clear the council could not control Heidt, the mayor suggested a 10-minute recess. She and council member Al Carrier stood. But the recess became unnecessary when Heidt sat down.
Shortly after, Heidt stood up at his chair and again tried to rally the crowd. That's when police told him he had to go.
Heidt, who has a degree from Stetson University College of Law, hung around the parking lot after he was shown the door. Heidt said he thought the council and police had denied him his First Amendment right to free speech. He also explained that he considered objecting to the order to leave but decided that going peacefully was a better tactic.
The meeting quieted some after Heidt left, but opposition to the ordinance remained fierce. Audience members objected when a speaker who supported it was allowed to exceed the three-minute time limit after one opposing it had been strictly held to the time. Council members let the anti-ordinance speaker return to the podium to finish her remarks.
Officials also came in for their share of criticism.
Larry Hauft, who grew up in Kenneth City and still lives there, called the ordinance "intrusive," then turned his attention to town attorney Paul Marino.
"I'm going to take a couple of potshots at attorney Marino," Hauft said. Hauft said he had listened to a tape of a special council workshop held this past summer to discuss the proposed ordinance. Marino, he said, had pushed for the ordinance and had laughed when talking about the speed with which $250-a-day fines for violating the ordinance could add up.
"Attorney Marino laughed," Hauft said. "He laughed at this, heh, heh, heh."
Hauft said he wondered whether the ordinance was merely a way for the town to make money during hard financial times. He urged audience members to get a copy of the tape and listen to it.
"It's enlightening," Hauft said. "See city politics at its finest."
Then, to Marino and the council, he said, "I'm offended. You guys have really offended me."
Opposition from Heidt, Hauft and several others did not dissuade the council from tentatively approving the ordinance. Final approval is scheduled for November, when town residents will have another chance to share their opinions with council members.
Not everyone opposed the ordinance.
"Kenneth City at one time was a nice, nice area," town resident Kevin O'Neil said. "Now does it look nice? Not one of you can tell me Kenneth City looks nice. … It looks like a slum. … Houses are to the point of falling apart."
Although many of those who opposed the ordinance disagreed with O'Neil about the overall looks of the town, they did agree that Kenneth City should make sure properties are kept up. They disagreed with the way the ordinance will enforce that tidiness.
The proposal is 26 pages long, and all buildings in the town would fall under its strict standards, which require, among other things, that "all exterior surfaces, which have been uniformly painted, shall be maintained free of peeling and flaking. Where large areas (greater than 1 square foot) of the aggregate of any painted wall shall have peeling or flaking or previous paint worn away, the entire wall shall be repainted."
One square foot, opponents pointed out, is only a bit bigger than a sheet of notebook paper. It is unrealistic, they said, to force someone to paint an entire wall because a small space needs work.
They also worried about the effect on seniors who live on fixed incomes and might not be able to afford to keep their homes in good repair or to fix them within the time limits set by the ordinance. They also were concerned about homeowners using the ordinance to bash neighbors they don't like.
One of the major objections centered on a clause that allows the police chief, building official or designee to come onto property and enter homes or businesses if there is "probable cause" to believe a violation is occurring. If the property owner refuses entry, the town can ask a judge for an order forcing the property owner to allow the inspector to come in.
Kenneth City resident Maureen Lyon said the clause was evidence of a "tyrannical government" and violated the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures of property.
"We do not want to be held prisoners in our home," Lyon said. "It's not 1940s Berlin."
Marino, however, said the clause does not violate the Fourth Amendment because the inspector must have probable cause to enter, and a judge's permission may have to be sought.
"There is nothing in this ordinance to be scared of," Marino said.