Thursday, May 26, 2011

PORTLAND DAILY SUN

Initial vote likely on proposed graffiti ordinance
By Casey Conley
May 10, 2011 12:00 am

After another round of revisions that eased fines and restrictions on property owners, proposed anti-graffiti rules being debated by a city council subcommittee over the past four months could face a preliminary vote tonight at City Hall.

Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, says he’s hoping to advance the measure to the full city council.

“We’ve been working on this since January, and we’ve had several public meetings, and taken input, and it’s certainly been widely publicized, so I feel like we have really bent over backwards to make sure everyone gets a chance to weigh in,” Suslovic said.

The meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. tonight in City Council Chambers.

The ordinance, which was introduced earlier this year, is viewed by many city officials as a crucial component in the ongoing battle against graffiti.

“It's important for the city to take an official stand against graffiti and the problems it signifies in our community,” said Trish McAllister, the city’s neighborhood prosecutor, in an email. She helped draft the proposal with help from Doug Fuss, a local bar owner.

“Adoption of an ordinance will not replace the criminal prosecution of those who are caught committing graffiti; it simply gives more alternatives to enforcement officials and the local judiciary when it comes to addressing this problem,” McAllister continued.

The plan would impose civil penalties on anyone caught writing graffiti as well as property owners who fail to remove graffiti from their buildings. It would also create new restrictions on sale and possession of “graffiti implements” — spray paint and art markers — and hold parents responsible for vandalism caused by their underage children.

Some of the more controversial aspects of the ordinance — fining property owners who don’t remove graffiti within 10 days from receiving a city notice — are watered down in the latest draft.

Newly proposed language would fine non-compliant property owners $100 or less for a first offense, instead of $250. Property owners could also avoid fines by presenting a graffiti abatement plan to city officials within the 10-day window.

“If someone is being responsive, they can avoid a fine. If it’s during winter and it’s impossible to get the graffiti cleaned up, all they’ve got to do is come in with a plan,” Suslovic said.

The revised ordinance would no longer exempt property owners from the ordinance from Jan. 1 through April 30. Instead, the same rules would apply year-round. It also allows for a six-month “sunrise” provision that gives property owners time to prepare for the new regulations.

Councilor Dave Marshall, a committee member and declared mayoral candidate, is proposing revisions that go even further. He wants to establish language dealing with legal graffiti murals like those found on Joe’ Smoke Shop or The Asylum nightclub, and also wants to do away with fines for non-compliant property owners.

He believes most property owners will comply with the rule to remove graffiti with or without the fines. But for those who don’t, he says a provision allowing the city to remove graffiti themselves, and bill property owners for the work, plus a 10 percent fee, would achieve the desired result.

“I see the fine against property owners as an unnecessary, punitive measure that we can strip out of the ordinance and still have the ordinance be more effective and embraced by a wider segment of our property owners in the city,” Marshall said yesterday in a phone interview.

Marshall, who is in San Diego visiting family, won’t attend tonight’s meeting, leaving his amendments in doubt, at least during this stage in the ordinance review.

As far as Suslovic is concerned, the question of fines for property owners has already been resolved.

“I think we have debated the fines quite a bit,” he said yesterday, adding, “My feeling is there is pretty strong support to leave fines where they are proposed.”

McAllister said she also supports leaving the fines in place. “Such a strategy simply gives the city more enforcement tools to be able to use as necessary in the cases of very negligent/non-responsive property owners,” she said.

Marshall, an artist who owns a gallery on Congress Street, indicated he may not support the proposal if the fine schedule remains intact.

“I am supportive of it without the punitive fines on property owners,” he said.

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