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9-12-12


SEARCH WARRANT
IDEA AXED
After vocal opposition,
committee changes stance

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark reporter

Platte City property owners and residents who voiced their concerns Monday evening regarding the proposed administrative search warrant ordinance undoubtedly walked away from a public hearing with a sense of accomplishment.

The reason? A controversial proposal died after nearly an hour of public comment opposed to the idea.

The public hearing, hosted by the Platte City Public Safety Subcommittee comprised of Aldermen Ron Stone, Tony Paolillo and Debbie Kirkpatrick was held to hear public comment on what had become a well-publicized, and based on the turnout, apparently unpopular proposal.

Also present at the table with the aldermen were Jennifer Fain, city attorney; DJ Gehrt, city administrator; Carl Mitchell, police chief; and Amy Hubbard, city clerk.

The proposal, as reported in the last several issues of The Landmark, involved a new city ordinance allowing city officials to seek administrative search warrants to be used for the purpose of code enforcement in the city. The proposal had actually met with approval by the subcommittee in early August and was initially advanced to an agenda for the full board of aldermen. But after some negative public reaction started coming into city officials following reporting on the issue in The Landmark, the item was pulled from the aldermen agenda and instead the committee scheduled Monday night’s public hearing for input.

A crowd of least 50 people in opposition to the proposed ordinance filled the meeting room at City Hall and spilled into the foyer. For nearly an hour, concerned citizens posed dozens of unanswered questions to city officials and firmly expressed their belief as to why the proposed ordinance should immediately be taken off the table.

Platte City citizens seemed to get their message across—”we're going to be heard”—even though at times Alderman Ron Stone banged his fist on the table saying "no personal attacks" to general questions posed to city officials.

Stone requested speakers refrain from asking the board questions, as well as making personal remarks to the board. He asked speakers to limit their comments to a period of time no longer than five minutes, allowing everyone a chance to be heard. He requested questions be submitted in writing and handed to the city clerk.

Sue McClung, who is a fourth grade teacher, was one of 14 citizens that addressed the committee.

McClung said she was under the impression citizens could ask questions about the proposed administrative search warrant ordinance during the public hearing, rather than waiting until another time to ask the questions.

“I will say that I hope that you are at least asking yourselves why we need this ordinance when there are provisions within the law for people to come into your home when there is probable cause…but it needs to be stated very clearly what is to be looked for and there needs to be some probable cause,” said McClung.

“Now I'm not an expert on the Constitution, but I do teach the Bill of Rights to my fourth graders and I assure my fourth graders that nobody can come into their house to search it and take things away from them unless there has been probable cause. I would hate to think that I miseducated my 4th graders, because Platte City seems to think they are smarter than our founding fathers. Our Constitution has survived for over 200 years.”

“Why do we need this? Codes are enforced every time a property sells. Within the last two years my son bought a foreclosed home in Platte City and I can assure you the lender was not lending any money unless he was sure that codes were met. And codes were updated and met. So there are times and there are places for these things to be looked at and taken care of,” said McClung.

Therefore, there is no need to enact the proposed administrative search warrant, she said.

She told the public works sub-committee to “remember you are here by good grace because we elected you into office and we can vote you out."

In a prepared statement, Olin Miller, who owns a business on Main Street and two residences in Platte City outlined why he thought the ordinance was too broad.

“I was told that the proposed ordinance was to replace and offer reconstruction including guidelines and restrictions to the current ordinance,” he said. “Yet when I read the proposed ordinance it does not repeal, rewrite, amend, or change the current ordinance. To me there is a conflict in the information being provided which leads me to believe there is an alternative reason which officials are afraid to disclose.”

He goes on to say that following a meticulous examination of the proposed ordinance, he has concluded that the ordinance “is being designed to give discovery and enforcement power to a broader range of city officials to be able to enforce” sections of “the municipal code where no discovery and enforcement provisions currently exist.”

Miller said he arrived at this conclusion after Jennifer Fain, city attorney, specifically referenced both a building enforcement code as well as a business occupancy code enforcement.

“Our constitutions, both federal and state, were very carefully worded to protect individual privacy and property. The current section of the Platte City code I am fine with since it is for the benefit of the general public when specific, well-defined conditions change or begin to exist. If city officials want to have discovery and enforcement power under other sections of the current municipal code for specifically defined reasons and in carefully guarded situations then prepare and offer to the citizens of Platte City a specifically written ordinance for each section of code.”

Miller suggested the ordinance both define and set forth guidelines for when and how administrative search warrants would be utilized.

“Maybe then we, the citizens of the community, might be more willing to allow searches. I personally have observed several violations of building code sections. We now have Lowes, Home Depot, and many other stores that encourage individual property owners to do their own repairs and improvements. The use of light cord to wire a room addition is not acceptable, but it has been done out of ignorance and stupidity and ignoring of municipal codes. If that is what you want search warrants and rights and procedures for, then be specific and straight-forward in your ordinance and in its purpose.

“My family and I do not intend to violate codes, but we also do not want to carelessly give up our constitutional freedom on a blanket basis,” said Miller.

Andy Stanton, a Platte City resident and businessman who is a former alderman now serving on the Central Platte Fire District board of directors, also addressed the sub-committee Monday evening.

“For years I have sat with you people,” said Stanton. “All you guys do is bob your heads yes every time the administration puts something in front of you. Well, you guys finally woke up the silent majority.”

Following this comment, Alderman Stone requested Stanton refrain from making "personal attacks" directed to the board and get back to commenting on the issue at hand. Many in the crowd responded from their chairs with “That’s not a personal attack.”

Stanton remarked that he not only opposes the currently proposed ordinance, but also the ordinance written in 1996, which authorized city officials to enter and inspect buildings in the day light hours if there was a nuisance in existence, creating conditions detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of individuals.

Carolyn Madorie, a resident of Platte City for 28 years, briefly spoke out against the proposed ordinance claiming that the citizens of Platte City need privacy in their homes.

Steve Nash, a property owner in Platte City, echoed her comment, “Is it not criminal to sacrifice the rights of privacy that are purchased with the blood of patriots?” said Nash. “Think very carefully about giving police additional powers, they are already very powerful.”

He provided examples of the over-reaching authority the government has been given based upon the passing of the Patriot Act including access to bank statements, credit cards statements, and phone registration.

“How much government bullying can we tolerate?”

Moments later, Billy Knighton, of Ward 1, a former alderman, addressed the board and requested they reveal to the citizens of Platte City the dollar amount the city has spent on legal fees for the city attorney to both research and draft the proposed ordinance, as well as any other additional expenses to the city in developing the proposed ordinance.

“I think it is money that is foolishly spent, particularly in this economy,” said Knighton. “It is something that we do not need. We have an ordinance that I understand takes care of about anything we need and now we're going to put on another ordinance when we don't enforce the one we have already.”

He added that the proposed ordinance has created a sense of fear among senior citizens in Platte City.

“It is disgraceful as a citizen of Platte City to have some of our citizens say that they are afraid they are going to lose (privacy in) their homes,” proclaimed Knighton.

Platte City resident Matthew Wheaton questioned the constitutionality of the ordinance.

“It seems on the surface that this ordinance is blatantly unconstitutional,” he said. The ordinance does not define probable cause, he said, before suggesting that a higher level of probable cause should be required in a civil matter.

Wheaton described the ordinance as vague and said the ordinance neither describes the place to be searched nor the item to be seized.

“This sounds like a fishing expedition,” said Wheaton.

John Townsend of Platte City presented a picture to the board, which displayed tall weeds. He proclaimed that the land has been mowed maybe three times in the past five years making it a haven for wild animals. Townsend requested city officials enforce the current ordinance regarding nuisances before enacting new ones.

Dave Brooks, who served as mayor of Platte City for six years and two years as an alderman, said:

“I think that The Landmark did a good job in spelling it out and the city attorney even said, 'look we don't think we can do what you want us to do unless you pass this ordinance,' which really means that you have the right for any reason whatsoever to have the police department or the codes department come to your house and come into your house or your business. I'm an American and I'm saying to you that in my opinion these codes should have never gotten by you, the board…It should have been struck down. It is wrong and you shouldn't do it. We don't want you to do it. We're trying to get along, but we're not going to stand for it,” said Brooks.

Lee Roy Van Lew, former alderman, suggested city officials put the issue on the ballot, rather than deciding the “complicated” issue on their own.

“It is an issue that should not be decided by six people and the mayor. It is more than you, six people, can handle,” proclaimed Van Lew. “This is too big for you.”

Platte City resident Kelly Goen posed several questions to the committee, including whether the ordinance was proposed during any other time and if the committee discussed other means of tackling situations that would require the issuance of an administrative search warrant.

“Which city employee is willing to trample our privacy rights and which ones are willing to protect those rights?” asked Goen, who later suggested city officials send a letter or issue a fine rather than enter someone's home without their permission.

Goen brought up another point by stating that “it is not illegal to be poor.” She indicated citizens who cannot afford the hefty cost of new construction fear they may be targeted under the proposed ordinance.

Shirley Kimsey, who has owned a building on Main Street for 40 years, recalled several occasions where she dealt with the codes enforcement officer in Platte City. She said each encounter was more frustrating than the one before.

Ted Craven, a resident of Platte City for 28 years, Robert Goen, and Ron Pine, who has been a resident in Platte City for 50 years, also spoke out against the proposed ordinance.

In addition to the citizens who were able to voice their concerns on Monday, four additional individuals who were unable to attend the public hearing wrote letters to the board addressing their concerns, including Terrence Durrill and Jim Shaw.

After closing the public hearing, Stone asked if there was a motion from the board to move the proposed ordinance to the full board.

After a brief period of silence, he announced the issue has died for lack of a motion. There was no discussion of bringing back a revised version.

Applause and cheers erupted from the crowd.