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Daily Pilot

Nuisance ordinance draws criticism

Some detractors say the proposal is too broad, and another asks if it violates the 4th Amendment.

By Bradley Zint

10:35 PM PDT, June 18, 2013

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The Costa Mesa City Council faced a heap of criticism Tuesday evening during a public hearing on a proposed ordinance intended to address derelict buildings and other grievances.

But while critics called the Public Nuisance Abatement Ordinance too broad and open to considerable discretion, city officials contended that it would expand the city's ability to address problem properties like crime-ridden motels, sober-living homes and buildings that are structurally unsafe, fire hazards or sites of excessive noise.

Under the ordinance, so-called "public nuisances" are defined broadly. City officials said the nuisance law would be a cost-saving measure that would better streamline the enforcement process. Furthermore, it would be sparingly used, they said.

The ordinance received Planning Commission approval in May.

"We're not doing this to have Gestapo-like tactics," said assistant CEO Rick Francis. "But some of our residents are creating real problems, and we want to address these things."

Eleanor Egan, a former planning commissioner and frequent council critic, said the city "can't just declare something a nuisance because you want to … it needs to be a danger to public health or safety."

She also that if the ordinance is really intended to address crime-ridden properties, that would be mean targeting an area with a significant rate of crime: 3333 Bristol St., otherwise known as South Coast Plaza.

"Just because there is a lot of criminal activity at a location doesn't mean the property owner is at fault," Egan said.

Greg Ridge, another frequent council critic, compared the ordinance to "listening to rules from my mom."

Councilwoman Sandy Genis, who said such power could leave the door open to governmental abuse, asked Deputy City Attorney Elena Gerli about any conflict with the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans unreasonable searches and seizures.

Gerli said there "are definitely constitutional rights at issue here, but that's what due process is for."

Entry into any suspect properties would be permitted by consent or by court order, the latter of which could be obtained after an appeals process that gives the affected property owners several chances to fix the issue.

"If they just won't comply, that's when we get a court order to abate," Gerli said.

Around 40 minutes into the discussions, Mayor Jim Righeimer asked Genis to speed up the process so the council could continue with its other business.

"If we're here till six o'clock in the morning, it's important because of freedom and liberty," Councilwoman Wendy Leece said.

A few minutes later, Genis mentioned garden gnomes again. Earlier in the evening, she said they could be subject to the ordinance because they may be bothersome decorations to some residents.

Councilman Gary Monahan then jokingly asked for a motion "not to ban garden gnomes."

Righeimer later said that he didn't see "gnomes or something like that" being under the purview of the Public Nuisance Abatement Ordinance.

"We're talking about a process that could take a year or two for somebody who's just not willing to solve a major problem out there," Righeimer said.

The council ultimately voted to reexamine the ordinance at a later meeting, possibly the first one in August.

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City CEO contract

The council also unanimously approved a contract for city CEO Tom Hatch, who took the helm in March 2011.

The contract includes raising his yearly salary to $217,656, giving him a "technology allowance" of $250 a month and increasing his monthly car allowance from $477 to $650.

It calls for cuts to his benefits, such as vacation and sick time. He will also contribute more to his pension.

One public speaker spoke against Hatch's contract, saying that it was wrong to cut his benefits.

Before her vote, Councilwoman Sandy Genis said to Hatch, "I think it's interesting … that our only public comment is that we're not giving you enough."

As of press time, the council had not yet voted on the city's $132.3-million budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year.