Last updated: October 17. 2013 11:38PM - 3191 Views
By - jlynott@timesleader.com

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WILKES-BARRE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania plans to meet with city officials to discuss an ordinance setting conditions for closing problem properties.

The two sides have been talking since the ACLU sent a letter earlier this month to Mayor Tom Leighton raising constitutionality concerns about the law.

As of Thursday, both sides were working out scheduling conflicts to set a date for a private meeting, said assistant city attorney Bill Vinsko and Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of the ACLU.

“Until there is more conversation about the state of affairs, we’re holding our fire,” Walczak said.

The ACLU first showed an interest in the ordinance in August after Leighton announced a “get-tough” policy against rental property owners and tenants viewed as the cause of the spike in violent crimes in the city this year.

Due process issues

At the time, the ACLU said there were concerns about “serious due process problems” with the mayor’s proposal to amend the ordinance and set a one-strike limit for gun and drug crimes that would trigger a six-month shut down of a rental unit or building.

Since it went into effect on Sept. 1, the city has twice enforced the ordinance and shut down apartments on Carlisle and North Main streets.

At least one of the property owners is challenging the ordinance and plans to go before the city’s Housing Appeal Board next month. The five-member board made up of citizens chosen by the mayor and approved by council will hear the case and can decide to either uphold, reduce or reverse the city’s action.

Vinsko said the city “has no plans to change any part of the ordinance” and welcomed the opportunity to meet with the ACLU.

“We’re willing to discuss all issues,” Vinsko said. “We want to keep an open dialogue.”

The ACLU’s letter of Oct. 3 acknowledged the city “aims to address legitimate concerns in ‘reducing and/or eliminating crime within the City,’ but the provisions violate the U.S. Constitution as well the Pennsylvania Constitution and federal and state laws and could result in “costly and time-consuming litigation.”

Agreement pending

The ACLU asked the city to agree “to either not enforce the Ordinance as written or revise it significantly to avoid infringing upon the constitutional rights of tenants and property owners.” It set a deadline of Thursday to respond.

Walczak said the city responded almost immediately after receiving the letter. His organization wants to learn more about the amendment and the other part of the law that gives a code enforcement officer the authority to order a unit or building shut down if three or more disruptive conduct or police reports “are generated from activity on the premises.”

The ACLU has a pending case in Norristown that could affect how it deals with the Wilkes-Barre ordinance, Walczak said. But the ACLU is proceeding cautiously on the city’s law with good reason, he said. “It’s possible that our understanding on how the law works is inaccurate,” he said.

He added that he expects to have a “forthright exchange of views on the topic” during the meeting.

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