Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Update: Fixing the Form or Pressing Charges

Sara Shookman

At Monday's Athens City Council Community Issues Committee meeting, a long agenda was halted by discussion of the landlord tenant agreement. It took more than an hour for Council, the city Law Director and Athens residents to voice their varied opinions.

And the outcome: more waiting in a game that could end with dozens of landlords facing criminal charges.

The History of the Form

Council member Nancy Bain broached the topic in Community Issues committee meeting, starting with the history of the form. Bain said the form was the brainchild of Ohio University and the city to prevent problems like a house fire during Halloween weekend 2004.

Bain said the form was intended to educate tenants.

Despite problems with enforcement, Bain said the process for completing the form is simple.

"It's not tough! It is what you do if you care about your property for goodness sakes," said Bain, who also owns several rental properties.

Bain's explanation brought up three questions for the Council to answer.

Should We Keep the Form?
Law Director Pat Lang introduced the controversial idea of changing the form or the process at the last regular Council meeting.

"To watch for two years as the city lifted not one single finger ever to attempt to support this law," Lang said, "I know that your frustrations are entirely valid."

Lang said if the goal of the form was to educate tenants, Council must agree there are some problems with the law.

Lang asked Council to agree there are problems with the law.

Lang said if the city agrees to go forward with prosecution, his office is prepared. He presented a stack of 291 criminal complaints already drafted by his office.

"City Council decides they want to go ahead, we're ready. We've got them right here," Lang said. "We need to enforce this law. But are we doing it in a way that is responsible and in a way that limits our potential problems down the road with this?"

Should We Change It?
Council member Kent Butler said he's heard concerns from city residents and landlords about the education idea behind the form.

"I don't think we need to spoon feed grownups that happen to be first time tenants," Butler said.

Landlord Jennifer Romero said she feels uncomfortable explaining and answering questions about laws she didn't pass.

Athens resident Joan Kraynanski, who is also a member of the West Side Neighborhood Association, said if the city doesn't do a better job educating student renters, it becomes the responsibility of their city resident neighbors.

Athens residents share their thoughts on the landlord tenant agreement.

What Should be the Penalty?
The current law makes failure to turn in signed forms a criminal offense, which Lang thinks is wrong.

Lang suggested the city could use other means to punish delinquent landlords, such as tying the agreement to city rental permits. Landlords would not be able to renew annual rental permits without complying with the landlord tenant agreements. He said being denied a permit would be worse for landlords than the fine they might pay if charged with a minor misdemeanor.

Mayor Paul Wiehl said this could create a problem because rental permits are renewed in January, while many leases begin in June. Wiehl said the city simply needs to start filing charges. "Hammer 'em," Wiehl said.

Local attorney Bill Soprani said, "This is no time to back off, it's time to move forward."

If the city did file the 291 complaints, landlords would have the following options:

-Fight the charges in court
-Plead guilty and pay the fine

The maximum fine for a minor misdemeanor offense in Ohio is $150.

Council agreed to hold a work session in the next few weeks to decide on changing the law or starting to file charges.

To read Athens MidDay's earlier report on this subject, click here.

No comments: