CLINTON — An ordinance that allows the city to remove residents from their homes if the city deems the structures unsafe is government overreach, two Clinton city councilmen said Tuesday.
Councilmen Cody Seeley and Sean Connell objected to amendments to Chapter 155.21 of the Clinton City Code proposed during the March 23 Committee of the Whole meeting and to a rewritten version presented Tuesday. The first reading of the rewritten version was approved by the council Tuesday, with Seeley and Connell voting against it.
“This was amended to reflect the concerns that council expressed at the Committee of the Whole regarding the looseness of the language,” City Attorney Pat O’Connell said. “This ties it very closely to the International Property Maintenance Code, specifically Chapter 109.1.”
The proposed amendment to the code section defining the legal procedure for condemnation of unfit dwellings would mandate that a dwelling be vacated immediately if, in the judgment of the housing inspector, there exists an immediate threat to health and safety of occupants as defined in the IPMC.
The amendment would require that the housing inspector detail in the order to vacate the precise IPMC section implicated and why the situation presents an immediate threat to health and safety.
“That was to address ... Councilmember Connell’s concern that we were the Wild West and we didn’t want the inspector to kick anybody out of a house unless it really did justify that,” O’Connell said.
“That would allow ... a precise reason to be stated, so that if they disputed that, they would know exactly how to dispute it as opposed to it being just sort of somebody’s rough judgment,” said O’Connell.
The wording is similar to other city codes such as those in Bettendorf and the Quad-Cities, said O’Connell.
Seeley asked if the ordinance could say “threat to life” rather than “threat to health and safety” of the occupants.
“Health and safety is the standard language because sometimes things are necessarily going to kill you instantly,” said O’Connell. “But if you’re breathing a toxic substance, for example, that may not kill you immediately, but it’ll kill you. ... You’ll end up in the hospital.”
“I still just don’t feel real great about this for some reason,” said Seeley.
“If it said immediate death, that would be pretty hard to necessarily prove that,” said O’Connell. “It was loose enough to go with Chapter 109.1.”
“Well, for an immediate vacation, I feel like it’s got to be a really very serious matter, which to me means your life’s in danger,” said Seeley.
“If it’s gonna end your life later down the road, say 30 days or 40 days, or whatever, I mean, that’s immediate,” said Councilman Ron Mussmann.
“I guess my problem with this isn’t that issue it’s rather the government’s role in private life,” said Seeley. “That’s my big issue.”
Seeley made the same objects last month.
As presented in March, the amendment specified that the structure must be vacated if, in the judgment of the housing inspector, “there exists an immediate health concern arising out of either the structural integrity of the structure, the sanitary conditions in the structure, or any other reasonably immediate threat to health and safety, including but not limited to the lack of running water, electricity or heat.”
The amendment was proposed after Neighborhood Services Inspector Richard Foley asked for flexibility to give people more than 30 days to vacate a property if necessary, said O’Connell.
But Foley also wanted authority to order people to vacate immediately in case of “an absolute, bona fide emergency,” O’Connell said during the March meeting.
The housing inspector could grant additional time due to extenuating circumstances, and the resident could appeal the decision.
“And he can only do the immediate expulsion if it’s an immediate threat,” said O’Connell. Immediate threat could be structural integrity or unsanitary conditions “like when there’s 40 cats and there’s ammonia in the air from that,” said O’Connell.
“What if they have nowhere to go?” Seeley asked.
“That’s always the issue,” said O’Connell. “Usually DHS is involved when it’s a super-bad situation with children. There isn’t always somewhere for them to go.”
“So maybe a cat house is better than no house,” said Seeley.
“You’re pointing out the obvious flip side to all of these ordinances,” said O’Connell. It’s a legitimate point, he said, but the council has to trust that the building inspector will make the right judgment, he said.
The fire department regularly deals with displacement of people following house fires, said Clinton Fire Chief Joel Atkinson. “We have voucher programs. We have Information Referral. We don’t just put them out. We find places for them to go.”
That would continue under the amended ordinance, said Atkinson.
Foley said he works with tenants to help them find a place to go. Sometimes they refuse that assistance, said Foley in March. In a recent case, he found a one-bedroom apartment with 14 people in it. They were running a generator wired through a panel and had to be immediately vacated because of fire concerns. They refused assistance, said Foley.
“The first thing that stood out to me is the line that says ‘the judgment of the housing inspector,” said Mayor Scott Maddasion. Vacating should be tied to a specific violation of the property maintenance code, he said.
“What I wouldn’t want to have to do, though, is wait for a structural engineer to show up when Rich goes out there and notices that 600 bricks have fallen off the front of the building onto the sidewalk. He’s going to know that without talking to an engineer,” said O’Connell.
Seeley understands moving people out of buildings that are falling down, he said, but sanitation issues are less clear. “Everybody’s definition of sanitary may be a little different,” said Seeley.
That’s why the code violation is important, said O’Connell. “That’s going to force that person to say, ‘I don’t think it’s sanitary, but how does this violate our code?’”
Connell said he remembers being in a house several years ago which he didn’t think was sanitary, but the people living there “were happy as clams, and ... it was 10 times better than what they had in South Clinton.”
“I say the definition varies, because I see it every day with my job,” said Seeley. “Some people live ... certain ways and some people live other certain ways, and I’m not one to judge.”
Several years ago a house in South Clinton exploded because of the animal feces in it, said Councilwoman Rhonda Kearns. “There are times when you have to get somebody out of there immediately,” she said.
Mussmann suggested that more than one person agree that the need for vacation is immediate, such as police or fire.
“Anytime Rich is dealing with anything he talks to me,” said Atkinson. “That’s just the normal process. He doesn’t take off on his own and say ‘I’m going to do this.’ We have a conversation about it.”
“I’m only OK with immediate if there’s a serious, immediate danger to life,” said Seeley. “I just think we’re infringing on people’s rights with some government stuff right now, and this, to me, fits that category.”
Asked if a lack of heat on a 10-below-zero day would be a reason for immediate vacation, Seeley said no.
Some people are living under bridges, Seeley said. “So whether they’re in a house or under a bridge, I don’t know what’s better. I think in a house.
“No, I don’t think the lack of heat in a house, if they’re choosing to be in there, constitutes you making them leave that second,” Seeley said.
“To me that is not a situation where you have the right to tell them to leave. They’re choosing to be there,” he said. Just as the city wouldn’t tell people to vacate a house without air-conditioning on a 100-degree day. “They have that right to make that choice,” Seeley said.
“I just want to be careful about not infringing on the rights of people,” said Seeley.
Even with new language written by the city attorney, Seeley and Connell voted Tuesday not to approve the first reading of the ordinance.
Councilmembers Gregg Obren, Mussmann and Kearns voted to approve the change. Councilmembers Julie Allesee and Bill Schemers were absent.
The ordinance will move to a second reading.