City advances updated trespassing ordinance
HUNTINGTON — Huntington City Council members on Tuesday held a first reading of an updated trespassing ordinance, adding the potential for jail time and increased citations for repeat offenders.
The updated ordinance must go through two more readings before it can be officially adopted.
Meanwhile, council members unanimously passed a resolution to support making permanent the Home Rule Pilot Program, which was approved by state legislators approximately 11 years ago. The program allows participating cities to pass ordinances and implement programs without prior state approval.
City Attorney Scott Damron said the city’s existing trespassing ordinance is somewhat weak, only allowing police officers to issue citations for people found to be squatting or living in uninhabitable conditions. This was not a deterrent because people would not pay their fines and continue to trespass, he said.
The proposed update to the ordinance will give police an option to jail first-time offenders for up to three days and issue them a citation not exceeding $100. Officers may jail repeat offenders no more than 30 days and issue a citation up to $500.
“This gives police ammunition when you have squatters or people living on a property that will not leave,” he said.
Council member Joyce Clark said updating the ordinance is overdue and could help the city deal with problematic properties such as the Flats on 4th apartment building, which is frequented by squatters and creates a public health hazard.
Clark said she knows of people living in her neighborhood in a house where a “Do Not Occupy” notice is posted, barring them from living in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Police have issued citations with little success.
“The people left and about an hour later they turned right around and came back, and
they’ve been doing that,” Clark said. “They have been given a citation ... they don’t care. They are not paying it anyway.”
Damron said the city would be required to pay for inmates housed in the jail under the updated ordinance. The county is responsible for paying the lion’s share of the regional jail bill, but the city is required to pay for inmates jailed for violating city ordinances.
The updated ordinance will undergo a second reading during City Council’s Nov. 26 meeting.
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, council members approved a resolution in support of the Home Rule Pilot Program at the request of Mayor Steve Williams, who is also president of the West Virginia Municipal League.
The original program included four cities but has now expanded to more than 30. The laws allowing for the program are set to expire in July 2019 unless state legislators move to enshrine the program into law.
Williams said the program allowed Huntington to strengthen its pension fund, address substandard buildings and bolster economic development.
“Frankly, Home Rule has saved our city,” Williams said. “The reason we are having the success we are having is because of Home Rule, and a number of cities throughout the state are able to say the same thing.”
State legislators will have the option to pass a bill making the program permanent when the Legislature meets in January.
Monday’s City Council meeting was moved to Tuesday because of the Veterans Day holiday being observed Monday.
Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.