Changes coming to litter ordinance

By: GABRIEL TYNES | June 9, 2014

The city of Mobile is likely weeks away from adopting amendments to its litter ordinance which combined with stricter enforcement, are expected to prompt the first shots in Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s “war on litter.”

This week, the public safety committee will review seven substantive changes to the existing ordinance, primarily aimed at commercial properties and multi-family dwellings. But the amendments also put new emphasis on cigarette butts, junked vehicles and unlicensed signs on utility poles or in rights-of-way.

In addition to a new enforcement tactic that will issue criminal citations rather than municipal offense tickets (MOTs), Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said the amendments will “force accountability” in a citywide anti-litter campaign.

“This is the start of a more comprehensive plan coming out in the next few months that deals not only with an ordinance change, but some restructuring and realignment in the city work chart and the movement of personnel,” Cooper said.

Assistant City Attorney Melissa Mutert, who helped draft the changes, said while some may require capital expenditures for property owners, they would also play into the city’s updated stormwater management plan, which is currently in draft form awaiting approval from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

“What we’ve done is make some improvements in light of fact that we’re going to do this enforcement. So we thought, ‘let’s do some housekeeping, let’s make sure everything we want in it is in it’ and then we’re going to roll forward,” she said.

Among the changes in the updated ordinance include requiring cigarette and litter receptacles on commercial properties sufficient to take care of the premises and enclosures around dumpsters. Mutert said one of the reasons people litter is because there are not adequate receptacles on commercial property.

The dumpster enclosures would have to be constructed of wood or brick “so they are hidden and the garbage or the litter is retained within to prevent litter from getting into the streets and into the stormwater,” Mutert said.

Similarly, a section addressing “sweeping litter into the street” explicitly adds cigarette butts.

“You already can’t blow leaves and debris or anything else into stormwater drains, but we specifically mentioned cigarette butts,” Mutert said. “That is hugely important.”

The new ordinance also redefines “junk vehicle” to exclude a requirement that the license plate be current and include characteristics such as “non-operating, abandoned, wrecked or partially dismantled, flat tires or a missing engine, doors, hood, windows or other missing body parts.”

“Owner” is also specifically defined for the first time in the ordinance as “any person, agent, firm or corporation having legal title to real property, including any mortgage foreclosure bank, company, institution, individual or other entity of record, which has foreclosed on the property, or the estate of the deceased owner, or the last recorded owner in the property tax records of the Mobile County Revenue Commissioner.”

The original ordinance included provisions to hold occupants or tenants responsible for litter generated from properties they lease, but the amendments treat multi-family premises and commercial properties equally and finally, prohibits signs on trees and utility poles in the right of way without exception.

Jena Berson, the mayor’s senior advisor, said the ordinance was good as it existed, but the amendments and additional enforcement will provide “real muscle” in the campaign to clean up the city.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” she said. “Once this passes, we’re moving full steam ahead. The mayor started months ago by going to community meetings in different districts all over the city saying this is one of the biggest problems the city is facing. So this is the mayor moving forward on something that is near and dear to him and certainly the people in the community want to see action and see it cleaned up.”

Mutert said the difference between a municipal offense ticket and a criminal citation is that often, if a defendant addressed a complaint arising from a municipal offense ticket, the complaint disappeared without the defendant ever having to answer to the court.

“What is going to be important about enforcement is that under our city code, we do not have to issue a warning to a commercial property owner before we issue a ticket,” she said. “We have been doing that, but we going to change that. We are going to go ahead and issue the ticket and you’re going to have to come to court and you’re going to have to pay a fine and court costs … and every day that an offense exists is a continuing offense and you can get a fine and court costs for every day. So it would behoove a commercial property owner to go ahead a police a parking lot and that’s huge.”

Cooper said the intent is not to be “intentionally punitive,” but to give the city options so people take the ordinance seriously.

“What you’re going to start to see is an overwhelming level of engagement from the public,” he said. “It starts to change your behavior and you start to pick up things at one time you didn’t see so ultimately, this is the policy behind it all. There is a legal framework but it is also an attempt to really change the behavior of the community.”

Penalties for violations of the litter ordinance can range from $250-$500 or a minimum sentence of community service to a maximum of six months in jail.

Often, offenders sentenced to community service must check-in with Keep Mobile Beautiful, where they are required to pick up litter. KMB Director Bob Haskins, who provided input on the amendments, said he expects them to make a visible difference.

“A lot of people don’t understand the trash generated from their property becomes litter as soon as it hits the ground,” he said. “We have to make people understand that we want to clean up the town and we want to work with people to do it. We hope in very near future we will change attitudes and those people will be free of the litter bug, so to speak.”