Home rule application in preparation

WEIRTON – Weirton City Council is continuing discussion on its plans to apply for the state’s home rule program, holding a workshop Monday prior to their regular council meeting.

Members of council plan to put their application, including the city’s proposed home rule regulations, up for public review by March 7.

If the city can obtain permission from the state Legislature, the home rule application could allow Weirton to pass laws or ordinances that are not specifically permitted within existing state legislation. There are 16 other cities applying for home rule across the state.

City Manager Valerie Means began Monday’s session by outlining actions the city would not be permitted to take under home rule. Topics out-of-bounds include anything contrary to environmental law, bidding on construction contracts, changes pertaining to federal laws or crimes, state crimes and punishments, pension and retirement plans, taxation, annexation, tax increment financing, extraction of natural resources, marriage and divorce laws and restriction of the carrying of a firearm, except for in municipal buildings dedicated to government operations.

“We’ve been talking for a long time about we want to do, and I think we’ve finally narrowed it down to the areas of priority that council has really had repeated problems with in the past,” Means said. “I think these issues are pretty key.”

Issue 1 of the plan involves probationary employment of uncertified building or zoning code officials and falls in the administrative category. The city currently is denied provisional status of a new hire in the building or zoning code department because the state fire marshal regulation does not consider “lack of certified persons able to serve” as a hardship. It takes 18 to 24 months to obtain all of the required certifications for positions in the city’s Inspections Department, which would leave them understaffed for a considerable amount of time. The proposed solution in the plan is to establish, through an ordinance, a two-year provisional status for a new hire code official, which would allow the city to put someone in the field while he or she works toward achieving the existing requirements and certifications.

“Just because they get a provisional license doesn’t mean I’m going to send them out to do a commercial inspection on their own. I just need them to be able to get to property maintenance and single-family dwellings,” Chief Code Official Rod Rosnick clarified. “It’s just that the first year of paying someone who isn’t really able to do anything is a killer.”

Issue 2 deals with another aspect of building and zoning code, namely enforcement provisions. State code does not provide clear authority for the city’s building and zoning code officials to issue “on-site” citations for external property maintenance, building structure and zoning violations. Citing public safety as well as beautification concerns, the city proposes granting zoning code officials, again by ordinance, the power to issue city-wide citations for exterior sanitation and common nuisance eyesore violations like trash, high grass, weeds and broken windows, which would allow for expedited service and reduced manpower.

Issue 3 addresses police officers’ enforcement provisions in Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission establishments. West Virginia code does not provide clear authority for Weirton police officers to enter ABCC-regulated establishments for the investigation or prevention of crime without the presence of one of the limited number of ABCC special investigators. Because of the increase Weirton sees in crime between the hours of 2 a.m. – closing time for bars and similar establishments in Ohio and Pennsylvania – and 4 a.m. – closing time in West Virginia – the city is seeking to establish authority by ordinance granting police officers the ability to enter an ABCC regulated establishment without the presence of special investigators.

“I think it’s good for two reasons,” City Attorney Vince Gurrera said. “Number one, a couple of years ago the ABCC came in and brought on a huge uproar over Rumorz Club and made us shut them down and do a bunch of stuff in one day, and then they said ‘We’re too busy to do anything.’ If it wasn’t for a quick meeting that the chief attended that we set up with them, we could have faced another situation where a group gets involved and then leaves us in a position where the city’s left standing there with the blame. Number two, I think it will force ABCC to be a little bit more cooperative with our officers, because I don’t think that they always are.”

“The ABCC agents do a great job. They’re good officers,” Weirton Police Chief Bruce Marshall added. “But they’re limited. There are not enough of them for how many bars we have in town and where we sit geographically.”

Mayor George Kondik asked Marshall how long it takes on average to get an ABCC special investigator in town. Marshall explained that if they have a week’s notice it’s not an issue, but around 3 a.m., when response time really counts, they are usually unreachable.

Issue 4 of the home rule plan aims to win municipal authority to place restrictions on streets and highways within city limits. This would help cut down on the wait time for state entities to address road issues and allow city council the right to change or impose certain restrictions such as traffic flow, traffic lights, stop signs, speed limits, weight restrictions and any other modifications deemed necessary.

“In other words, if we deem that we need a traffic light, like at the new school for instance, that’s an area that would normally have to go through the state’s process and possibly be denied,” Means said. “We would have the ability to put it up on our own initiative.”

“It took me two and half months to get the state to put up a sign that says ‘no turn on red,'” Ward 3 Councilman Fred Marsh recalled.

“Yes, under this, we would simply pay for the sign and put it up,” Means said.