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City officials try to clarify ordinance

Karen Langley | Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Assistant City Attorney Ann-Carol Nash and South Bend Common Council member Ann Puzzello met with student government leaders at Monday’s Council of Representatives meeting to exchange views on the city’s recent amendment to the disorderly housing ordinance.

The disorderly house ordinance, enacted in the early 1990s, enables the city to label a place where certain illegal activities recur as a public nuisance. The recent amendment, drafted by Nash, adds excise-related activities to the applicable code of conduct and allows the city to send landlords and tenants a notice to abate after a single instance of noise violation. If prohibited activities continue after this notice, the city will then file a suit that could result in a fine of up to $2500 per day for as long as the activity continues.

Student body president Dave Baron said he was concerned with a clause of the ordinance that frees landlords from culpability if they deliver tenants an eviction notice.

“From my perspective as a student, you are being given a notice to abate without the opportunity to abate,” he said. “It’s not a warning. You are kicked out on the street.”

Nash silenced the student government representatives when she said this notice was their warning.

“Who here does not know it’s illegal to serve alcohol to an 18-year-old?” she asked. “It is unfair to frame this as a big surprise. It’s a criminal law. You’re lucky you are not in jail.”

Judicial Council president James Leito countered that students were not lucky to be left without a home and asked why drinking tickets were not sufficient punishment.

“If we continue to have Turtle Creek as a mecca for underage drinking, it will happen year after year and year,” Nash said. “We have to address the fact that there are property owners and occupants who are facilitating this activity.”

She noted that eviction proceedings have always been an available defense in the drug house ordinance, which was passed along with the original disorderly house ordinance.

“How many chances do you think you should have to take the chance of poisoning someone to death?” Nash said, referring to Chad Sharon, a member of the class of 2006 who disappeared in Dec. 2002 and whose body was found in Feb. 2003.

Puzzello, whose district borders Notre Dame, denied the new legislation was targeted at students. Two weekends ago, police cited a family for noise violations at a raucous house party, she said.

“It’s about who[m]ever keeps people up at 1 a.m. in the morning with shouting and loud noises,” she said.

Leito asked if a party would be labeled as excessively loud based on an actual decibel level or if judgment depended on officers at the scene.

“If the police officer can hear noise from half a block away, it is too loud,” Puzzello said. “We’re talking about something that will keep people awake, especially after normal nighttime hours like ten o’clock.”

An upcoming public hearing will clarify how loud is too loud, Nash said.

Many students were bothered not only by the ordinance’s content but also its summer passage.

“It just seems incomprehensible to me that a city would pass a law that affects a group of people while that group is not there to discuss it,” Leito said.

Puzzello acknowledged the complaint and apologized to the student body. The city wanted to pass the ordinance before students returned, but its intention was to have the bill in effect before parties began in August, she said.

“I really am sorry about that,” she said. “I didn’t think about that point of view. It would have been a good thing to have you present and have your voice in it.”

Leito argued the value of student input would have surpassed the importance of enforcing the ordinance a month or two sooner.

Baron said South Bend community members had accused Notre Dame students of immoral behavior at the amendment’s summer hearing, an image he wished to change.

“That’s why the Community Relations Committee has been made, to show you that we’re not sex-crazed, drug-abusing criminals,” Baron said of a particular accusation.