The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 13, 2012

Proposed home rule bill could affect several areas

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Imagine losing the right to drive over a Confederate flag or pink flamingos in your yard or letting untended grass grow so high the neighbors raise a fuss.

While those scenarios might have been a stretch, a proposed bill extending home rule to municipalities across West Virginia certainly opens the door to suspend an operator’s license for unpaid fines levied after unheeded warnings about city code violations.

What is obnoxious to one might be an acceptable lawn decoration to another, however, as some lawmakers contended.

Or, as Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, a co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Government Organization, summarized, “That’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

Charleston is one of four cities with home rule, approved in 2007, and the pilot program is due to retire July 1. The concept also applied to Huntington, Wheeling and Bridgeport. Before the committee is a packet of bills, the chief of which would let a municipality issue a citation for violation of external sanitation and “common nuisance violations.”

The ultimate price one could pay is the forfeiture of the privilege to drive.

And that, Snyder said, should make lawmakers cautious about how the final draft is worded, given the high number of West Virginians whose licenses have been put on hold.

“The suspension of licenses is a huge issue,” Snyder said.

While no hard number was available, Snyder said he believes “hundreds of thousands” of motorists have surrendered their licenses.

“You would think the bulk of those would be for driving under the influence, or something like that,” he said.

Instead, the vast majority of the suspensions were ordered for non-payment of fines.

“I was stunned by the amount,” he said.

Snyder warned that home rule as defined in one of four bills poses “a big step for cities.”

“It does create significant problems with suspending so many,” the senator said.

“It is a massive number. Certainly, the committee needs to look into that before we include it.”

Besides allowing garbage to pile up outside or letting grass grow wild, residents could also be cited for graffiti, allowing sidewalks to fall into disrepair or having non-resident recreational vehicles. Some lawmakers wondered what else might be scrutinized. A nativity scene that an atheist found objectionable?

Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, looked at a photograph of one Charleston yard with two vehicles in it along with some discarded items.

“To people in a big town, that is just horrifying,” she said.

“But how many people live in a small town and that doesn’t look too bad?”

What if a town council decides one cannot have pink flamingos greeting passers-by, or finds fault with a Christmas display or a sign erected in the yard? she asked.

“There are things you might want to put in your front yard, like the famous toilet bowl planters,” she said.

Charleston city attorney Paul Ellis said official complaints are limited to exterior sanitation issues and matters that pose a threat to one’s neighbors.

That certainly doesn’t include the color scheme of a dwelling or lawn decorations, he said.

Any violation is in sync with the standards of an international building code.

Ellis told Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, that nothing specifically in the state code now allows cities to crack down on such matters except for various sections that draw municipal courts into play.

Without the new law, he said, cities must go through a lengthy process, and ultimately could wind up in court themselves.

“We would receive a lot of challenges by very bright defense attorneys if we just did this not under home rule,” Ellis said.

Appeals are allowed. A first citation could bring a $100 fine. Others within a one-year period can fetch a $200 penalty for a second offense, $300 for a third and $500 for each subsequent one. Failure to cough up fine money could remove one’s license to drive.

Jenkins suggested that rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, lawmakers should give municipalities in all classes some leeway in deciding what is in conflict with their ordinances and how they enforce violations.

“I think we should expand the authority,” Jenkins said.

“I’m not sure we should expand the Charleston prescription.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com