Can common sense prevail?


By Mike Kroll

Perhaps it should come as no surprise in a community that has seen its share of controversy that once again we appear to be polarizing over proposed changes to property maintenance ordinances in Galesburg. The discussion was commenced months ago but any semblance of community consensus seems to elude us. Community Development Director Roy Parkin and his staff worked to gather information from other communities about how they regulate property maintenance and have conducted local community meetings where Galesburg residents could speak their own minds. Beyond that the topic has repeatedly come up at Galesburg City Council meetings, frequently pitting council members against one another and audience members in an emotional war of words that has so far failed to advance the discussion.

The City Council is scheduled to conduct an informal work session on Monday, June 14th but it has already been determined that no public participation will be permitted during this session. Reluctantly acknowledging this limitation Alderman Tony Gerk proposed yet another public session to discuss the issue during the May 17th City Council meeting but received little support from his colleagues. Nevertheless, Mayor Bob Sheehan decreed that such a session be held next Tuesday (June 1st) from 6:30-8:30pm in City Hall. It is likely that only a subset of council members will attend that meeting and if recent history is any guide it is probable that this meeting will yet again pit the polar extremes of the Galesburg community against one another to the exclusion of most civil discussion of the issues involved.

Parkin distributed an 11-page document summarizing the issues from his department's perspective way back in November 2003 (still available on the Galesburg web site and City Manager Gary Goddard has presented a proposed work session agenda privately to city council members. Together these two documents should form the starting point for discussion deliberation. While hardly evident from the emotional public discussions, inflammatory rhetoric and political posturing that has characterized the vocal minorities at either extreme the "silent majority" of Galesburg residents recognize that things could be done to improve the appearance of this community without sacrificing too much liberty.

"I don't think we [city staff] are suggesting, or that the city council is likely to approve, anything radical here," explained Galesburg City Manager Gary Goddard. "The notion that any action taken by this City Council might be a Constitutional issue is frankly absurd. Reasonable people can disagree as to specifics but there does seem to be a general consensus that some properties are so unattractive or dangerous that the city must step in to represent the greater interests of the community. The whole reason for establishing community standards is the distinction between total freedom and liberty. In a community freedom is not absolute, individual excesses can be curbed where they threaten the liberties of neighbors."

While some issues do not appear to elicit too much resistance others have provoked near religious fervor by people on both sides. Goddard has proposed in his outline that the discussion begin with weeds and grass. For example: Should the maximum weed height be reduced below the current 12 inches? Shall prairie plots be prohibited in residential areas, other than at public-owned locations such as parks? If prairie plots are to be allowed should there be limitation as to where they can be located or how they must be maintained? While it is not uncommon for the city to receive complaints about unmowed lawns this area seems rather tame and unlikely to consume much city council time.

The next area on Goddard's agenda is more problematic. A great many of the complaints received by the city concern trash and debris yet arriving at a consensus on the relevant definitions seems unlikely. Goddard and Parkin have argued for very general wording here leaving lots of room for discretion by city inspectors. This approach doesn't really please either of the vocal constituencies. Vagueness and interpretation leave open the likelihood of inconsistent enforcement and engenders fear by some of city harassment whereas others fear that city officials will turn a blind eye to conditions that offend their sensibilities. While both concerns may well be justified there remains a very real problem of widely varying neighborhood standards. What may be acceptable in one Galesburg neighborhood would cause an uproar somewhere else.

"Galesburg is a city made up of neighborhoods and that reality does make our task much more difficult," admits Goddard. From Goddard's perspective what the ordinances must do is set a clear floor standard. Property maintenance below a certain point cannot be permitted anywhere in Galesburg however there must also be room for the application of higher standards in those neighborhoods there is a generally accepted consensus that more is to be expected of property owners. It is highly likely that these very issues will consume substantial portions of the council discussion.

A special case that has already demonstrated itself to be nearly intractable is that of vehicle parking and storage. In many areas of Galesburg it is not uncommon to find vehicles parked in front, side or back yards; often in various states of disrepair or disassembly. Nowhere else in this discussion will the emotions run higher yet it seems clear that most Galesburg residents would prefer some limitations here. The problem for city staff and the council is that this has become a hot-button issue with no room for compromise by those who insist that they alone are master of their property. This is the very issue that got Tony Gerk elected in 1983 and he remains true to his "Lug nut Liberation Brigade" in opposing almost any ordinance restricting vehicle storage.

The next category on Goddard's road map provides somewhat of a respite as there is general agreement against conditions that attract or harbor rodents or vermin. But since this issue is hard to separate from the demolition and removal of dilapidated structures the universal distaste for rats is unlikely to translate into a rapid consensus on streamlining the demolitions process. Another related factor here is cost. Demolition is expensive and Galesburg is far less flush today than it was just two years ago. Even if the city council could arrive at a consensus to move more quickly on demolition actions the city could not afford to tear down even the most egregious candidates.

Yet another thorny issue comes next on Goddard's agenda, outside storage. Like trash and debris and vehicle storage before it this issue is another hot button for those who feel its nobody's business but their own how they maintain their yard. Unfortunately, this is yet another major source of citizen complaints and one for which it is nearly impossible to administer black-and-white guidelines. "Like trash and debris outside storage is one of those things that defies clear definition but where most people recognize abuse when they see it," noted Goddard. "To my mind there are some things that simply should not be permitted and to which I hope this council can come to a consensus. For example, should we permit storage on porches and decks? If outside storage is to be allowed, should a privacy fence be required around the area?"

Asked about allegations by some that the city wanted to prohibit swimming pools Goddard responded: "Only to the extent that they are so poorly maintained as to pose a health risk due to standing water." Other questions posed in Goddard's agenda that have prompted loud reaction: "Shall trash cans/refuse containers be prohibited from being kept on the front porch or in the front or side yard? Shall a requirement be established to prohibit the parking of vehicles in front or side yards unless on a properly paved surface such as a driveway? Should the continuing use of barbed wire fences and electric fences be allowed?"

In any event Goddard feels we are still a long way from implementing many changes in Galesburg ordinances. He also want to discuss circumstances where the best way to assure compliance may be assistance rather than enforcement. For citizens who are truly unable to address some of the issues being raised Goddard would like to see the establishment of a community organization to assist them along with some city assistance. "Some people are limited by age, health or resources from bringing their properties into compliance and we should find ways to help. But for those property owners who simply refuse to comply it may be necessary to reexamine our enforcement options. Whatever changes are made will be at the direction of the city council and I am not expecting revolutionary change."

If common sense is to prevail on this issue it will only occur silent majority begin speaking up. Only in this way will the best interests of all Galesburg citizens be represented and protected from the tyranny of extremists on either side.