NARRAGANSETT—The town council voted unanimously to pass a first reading for amendments to the response costs ordinance which has been scrutinized in recent months by both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and local residents. The ordinance, passed in December, allows police officers to assess additional charges to responsible parties when responding to a disturbance, namely college and summer parties.
“This [ordinance] is one of many tools discussed months ago, trying to tackle all the issues of concerns about neighborhoods and disturbances during the school year,” said Town Manager Grady Miller in November when the ordinance was introduced. “We have looked at how other communities have dealt with similar disturbance issues, and it is a way of recovering costs of police response for noise.”
Under the ordinance, police officers responding to a property disturbance will give responsible parties a written warning of their liability of paying potential response costs. If officers respond to a subsequent disturbance at said property within a 12 month period, response costs will be charged to them. The dollar figure for any penalty may vary greatly depending on a number of issues.
The town council received significant criticism regarding the ordinance in the fall, from local rental property owners to the ACLU, who stated that the original proposal was too vague and imported significant monetary liability upon those deemed as ‘responsible parties.’
The town ordinance states that ‘All Responsible Parties shall be jointly and severally liable for the Response Costs regardless of whether or not a Responsible Party received an oral or written warning,’ a stipulation which Steven Brown, Executive Director of the Rhode Island ALCU, found troubling.
“The definition of ‘responsible party’ is too broad,” said Brown in November. “By imposing joint and several liability on all these parties, the ordinance casts the widest possible net and creates a nightmare for individuals caught up in the ordinance’s enforcement.”
On Monday evening, the town council specifically addressed amendments to the ordinance, suggested by Town Solicitor Mark McSally, including a refined definition for ‘responsible party’ and the imposition of a cap for fines incurred through the ordinance.
“In discussing the matter with the Police Chief, it is my view that it would be reasonable to set the cap at somewhere between $15,000 and $25,000,” read McSally’s January 10 letter to the town council. “I have suggested this amount because I want to be able to capture the cost of any damage to Town equipment, in particular motor vehicles, that could occur at a disturbance that got out of hand.”
Town council members discussed the impact of McSally’s suggested cap Monday evening, and although they agreed on principle, the actual dollar amount was determined to be too costly to ‘responsible parties.’
“I am comfortable with $1,500 or $2,000, but $20,000 seemed crazy,” said Councilwoman Susan-Cicilline-Buonanno.
“That is lose-your-house money,” said Councilman Christopher Wilkens.
McSally suggested that the same definitions outlined in Narragansett’s ‘Orange Sticker’ ordinance be used for ‘responsible parties.’ According to the amendment, a ‘responsible party’ can be a landlord, tenant, or persons involved in the disturbance to which officers respond.
The amendment also allows landlords opportunity to remedy situations involving unruly tenants or partygoers and remove themselves from liability, so long as ‘the resident and sponsor have taken all steps reasonably necessary to exclude participants from the premises, including landlords who are actively attempting to evict a tenant from the premises.’
“My recommendation was that since response costs are triggered by the noise or orange sticker ordinances, let’s use the same definition from the orange sticker ordinance,” said McSally. “It has been tightened up a little bit, and gives a landlord some flexibility when trying to get rid of a tenant.”
Ray Kagels, owner of Kagels Cottages in Narragansett, expressed continued concern about the response costs ordinance, but did praise the town’s efforts to make the ordinance’s language more specific.
“This is an issue of policy, which is the town council’s bailiwick, and I am pleased that they are thinking in terms of $2,000 and not $20,000,” said Kagels. “Overall, I am in favor of the changes, but it is a baby step, and does not address strict and joint liability, which are the real problems I see.”
“I think part of the problem [the ordinance] has created is that it can be interpreted in different ways, and that is attackable in a lawsuit,” he added. “You don’t want that kind of vagueness in an ordinance.”
Kagels criticized the appeals process outlined in the ordinance, stating that it does not provide any recourse through appeal for a responsible party to claim themselves innocent of a violation, but only to have the assessed costs removed.
“I’d like to see the town council amend the appeal process to allow people who feel aggrieved by this process to come and answer for themselves,” said Kagels. “[The ordinance states that] you have a right to appeal the amount, but not say, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’, by definition.”
“I think that if this liability scheme is kept the way it is, it is very unfair to certain parties,” he added. “There are people who are drawn into this thing by definition, particularly landlords, who are not popular people and demonized.”
A second reading of the proposed amendments will be held at the town council’s March 5 meeting.