SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — City councilors agreed this week to place an ordinance revision on their Oct. 1 meeting agenda to allow legal action against property owners who refuse to clean up “nuisance” properties.

Drafted by city corporate counsel Sally Daggett and Code Enforcement Officer Patricia Doucette, the amendment to Chapter 16 of city ordinances covering public nuisances allows municipal department heads or at least 10 tax-paying property owners who live within 500 feet of a property, to petition the council to declare a property a public nuisance.

When a request or petition is received, councilors would hold a public hearing to discuss possible safety, public health or environmental hazards on the property, and could order the owners to abate the problems within 15 days.

Violators who ignore the abatement order could face fines from $100 to $2,500 per day under Maine laws.

Doucette and City Manager James Gailey said they brought the amendment forward because of complaints from neighbors of several properties.
Doucette said she lacked the proper legal methods to resolve complaints and enforce cleanups on residential properties.

Supporters of the amendment, including real estate agent April Tracy, Columbus Street resident Barbara Perry, Wythburn Road resident Scott Day and former Kirkland Avenue resident James Wallace, said an abatement ordinance would improve real estate values and enhance Doucette’s efforts to enforce codes and ordinances.

Tracy and Wallace said they have been unable to sell, or had to reduce prices on properties, because the buildings are adjacent to nuisance properties where owners skirt yard sale restrictions or rely on building permits to justify a messy yard.

Daggett and Mayor Patti Smith emphasized the need for clear safety, public health and environmental justifications for declaring any property a nuisance. A provision for “unsightly and offensive accumulations or conditions” was removed from the proposed amendment before Monday’s workshop.

“The city does not want to be regulating aesthetic issues,” Daggett advised.

Public vs. private

In other business, councilors also reviewed rules governing executive sessions, limits on disclosure of what is discussed in the sessions, and when public votes are required after executive sessions.

After the workshop, Smith said the discussion was about “educating each other to work with the correct process.”

The Maine Freedom of Access Law requires executive sessions to be approved by a three-fifths majority of a governing body, which much cite specific reasons for the private deliberations.

Executive sessions can be called to discuss property sales, labor negotiations, personnel matters, student suspensions or expulsions, legal matters and litigation, and discussion of governing body or agency records shielded by law from public view.

Part of the council discussion centered on whether councilors who publicly speak about executive sessions could face censure, but no conclusions were reached on amending council rules.

Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis disagreed with Daggett on when the council must take public votes on items discussed in executive sessions, and objected to what she thought are council actions taken in executive sessions.

The section governing executive sessions specifically prohibits governing bodies and agencies from making final votes or decisions on “an ordinance, order, rule, resolution, regulation, contract, appointment or other official action” behind closed doors.

While declining to elaborate specifically, De Angelis said she felt there have been times when the council should have voted in public after an executive session.

“In my view — and I am clearly in the minority — I’m not convinced what we are doing is OK,” De Angelis said. “I’m saying when there is a decision that requires an expenditure of public money, we are obligated to let the public know.”

Daggett said councilors are not bound by the law to conduct public votes on everything discussed in executive session. She said they have not made closed-door decisions.

“The City Council has never taken final actions in executive session, no matter what some councilors say,” Daggett said.

Maine Municipal Association spokesman Eric Conrad said it was improper to comment on the specific workshop, but in general, association training for public officials stresses the need for open votes.

“We do tell councilors and selectboard members that final actions should be done in public,” Conrad said.

But decisions to continue discussions and the fact that sides may be drawn in private discussions do not violate the law or always require public disclosure.

“If they are having a robust discussion behind closed doors,” Conrad said, “it can become apparent how most councilors feel about things.”