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Springfield commission at odds over landlord/tenant rights debate


Whether or not to remove a $100 civil fine for landlords who fail to provide information to tenants about their rights has divided Springfield city commissioners.

Landlords must provide a tenant rights booklet to renters or face a $100 fine, according to city code that was enacted in 2001.

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City commissioners discussed last month removing the requirement but it ended in a stalemate, which included former Commissioner Dan Martin abstaining from the vote.

In 2001, the former Justice Action Mercy group wanted the city to create a landlord registration ordinance, meaning landlords would have to apply for a license every year. As part of the proposal, each time a property got a new tenant, it would have to receive an inspection.

Landlords fought against it and later compromised by agreeing to inform tenants about their rights with a booklet, Springfield Law Director Jerry Strozdas said.

It was necessary because landlords were abusing tenants, Springfield resident Danny Mapp said.

“I don’t know why you would want to take it out now but you can revert back to the same thing,” he said.

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The new debate began because the Springfield Fire/Rescue Division asked the city to consider making some fire code violations punishable through civil fines rather than criminal offenses, Strozdas said.

Under the current city codes, certain fire-related violations, such as commercial businesses not refreshing fire extinguishers, currently can only be enforced through filing a misdemeanor criminal offense through the Clark County Municipal Court. The fire department would rather fine offenders, Strozdas said, which led to changes to the city’s code violations.

“That was the primary objective of this legislation from staff’s perspective,” Strozdas said. “We don’t want to put people in jail or have a judge fine them a bunch of money for … not recharging their fire extinguishers when they’re supposed to, unless they’re just real bad repeat offenders.”

As city staff members examined civil code enforcement violations, he said they believed some areas should be cleaned up.

They also discovered a section about a requirement for landlords to provide a tenant rights booklet to renters or face a $100 fine, Strozdas said. City staff members decided to remove that section from the code enforcement violations and place it by itself in a section of business regulations, he said.

“We didn’t change anything substantively about it at that point,” Strozdas said.

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The change was initially proposed earlier this year but City Commissioner Joyce Chilton raised the question about whether or not the fine should continue to be imposed, Strozdas said.

“It’s not a staff decision to make, it’s a commission decision,” he said.

Chilton doesn’t have a problem giving a tenant a booklet but doesn’t believe landlords should be fined if they don’t, she said. Springfield makes landlords responsible for many things, Chilton said.

“People move out of the house and tear it up, the landlord is responsible,” she said. “People don’t cut their grass, the landlord is responsible. People don’t pay the water bill, the landlord is responsible. My whole thing was to make this a balanced effort between the tenant’s responsibility and the landlord’s responsibility.”

At the time the civil fine was enacted, landlords agreed to it because they didn’t want more stringent regulations such as inspections before every new tenant, Copeland said. He understands Chilton’s intentions, but said he believes she has gone too far with the proposal.

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“(The fine) was an attempt to strike a balance between landlords and tenants,” Copeland said. “I personally support what’s been our policy in the past.”

City staff members also recommended landlords provide proof that tenants knew they could view the booklet at the city’s website, Strozdas said.

At the December meeting, Chilton made a motion to remove that language but that was defeated by a 2-2 vote and Martin abstaining.

Several residents spoke out in support of the current regulations. Some people might not have access to the internet, Springfield resident Wes Babian said.

“Having some expectation placed upon the landlord to communicate properly with the tenant in regards to their rights is not asking too much,” Babian said. “I’m not understanding the motivation for changing this at this point … Some further steps should be taken for those people to know what their rights are.”

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The original language — which simply moved the requirement to a different section of the city codes without other changes but added civil fines for fire code violations — was also defeated 2-2 with Martin abstaining again. Chilton and Springfield City Commissioner Kevin O’Neill voted against the measure, while Copeland and former Commissioner Karen Duncan each voted for it.

“It means we’re back to ground zero,” Strozdas said. “Nothing has changed.”

Both sides of the issue have merits that require further discussion, Martin said.

“I didn’t feel comfortable making a decision when I think there’s people in the community who would still want to weigh in on it one way or the other,” he said. “There will be new commissioners and they can take a fresh look at it. There’s an argument for tweaking it, I just think there needed to be some more discussion before it moved forward.”

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