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Steubenville Council discusses safety of citizens

DISCUSSION — City Council discuss problem properties and the tools they have at their disposal to address them Tuesday. -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — Hours after four people were shot at Club 106, 6th Ward Councilman Michael Hernon called for a “more permanent solution” than just prosecuting those responsible.

“I know we’ve taken steps in the past,” Hernon told City Manager Jim Mavromatis and Law Director Costa Mastros. “I want to see if we can put some more energy into seeing how we can make it safer for our citizens.”

The four — a pair of city residents, a man from Pittsburgh and another from Chicago — were injured after gunfire erupted inside the club, then spilled over onto the sidewalk outside. Police Chief Bill McCafferty said surveillance video showed “a lot” of the bar’s patrons had guns and described the scene inside the club as “utter chaos.”

Second Ward Councilman Tracy McManamon said he would “stress the importance” of resolving the problem the club poses to the community, once and for all.

“And (the) sooner the better,” he said. “This is a continuing nightmare. I think our citizens are pretty much fed up with it.”

Hernon said there’s “a need for us to recognize this as an issue that’s persistent and continuing.”

“In light of (what happened at Club 106) and the conversation we had (earlier) about nuisance abatement and criminal activities … are there strategies we can employ or should employ for the safety of our citizens?” Hernon asked the city manager and law director. “I know some of the things are limited … but tell us where you think this can go.”

Mavromatis said the detective division is still sifting through all of that video.

“(They’re) working diligently on this, going through the tapes trying to put the pieces together, identify people, and they will be (meeting with) the county prosecutor on possible charges,” he told council. “As far as that establishment goes, there are several options we’re going to look at. That’s all I’m going to say about it.”

Council had spent an hour prior to the council meeting discussing problem properties and the tools the city already has at its disposal, like nuisance abatement and administrative warrants, to address them. That discussion, though, had focused on unkempt properties, with Municipal Judge John Mascio telling them new laws aren’t the answer.

“Every single law you need you already have,” Mascio had said. “You just need to pull out the city code, the Ohio Revised Code and the property maintenance code.”

First Ward Councilwoman Asantewa Anyabwile, chair of council’s pride committee, showed council slides of property maintenance issues ranging from lots overgrown with grass and weeds to vacant houses filled with trash and debris, and said city-owned lots are some of the most flagrant eyesores.

“How can we hold city residents accountable … if city also has lots that look like (that)?” Anyabwile said.

“I think it’s pretty evident how we can get it done,” 3rd Ward Councilman Eric Timmons replied. “We say we want all of those lots cleaned, that’s going to take some money. I guess that’s just a direction council is going to have to decide if that’s the way it wants to go. I mean, how big a priority is it?”

Fourth Councilman Royal Mayo said it’s a question of fairness. “We can’t send our code enforcement officer out to tell people to keep their grass at a certain level when (the city doesn’t),” he said.

Hernon said city officials need to “take a sober assessment of how much we have and what we need … and how do we mow it” and, when it makes sense, find out if neighboring property owners are interested in acquiring the parcels.

“I’m not taking about parks here, I’m talking about empty vacant lots” for which the city has no use, he said. “It’s costing us money right now to own these.”

Mascio said community service crews do some grass cutting, but said there’s no guarantee people assigned to do the work will show up when they’re supposed to, and reiterated advice he shared with previous councils.

“I think the best approach with these vacant lots … if the city comes in and brush hogs the property for us, then lets community service come in and trim it up, clean it up,” he said. “And no one is spraying the properties — we keep going back to the same property, two and three times. It would be a lot more advantageous if we weren’t duplicating our efforts all the time.”

He said administrative search warrants are another “fantastic tool” for assessing vacant structures.

“If you have probable cause to believe they’re non-compliant with health regulations or safety regulations, you can get an administrative search warrant that permits an officer to go in and check things out.”

Filing a nuisance abatement action with common pleas court is also an option, he said. During the past 10 years city officials have used nuisance abatement regulations to force Club 106 to shut down temporarily.

“I think instead of talking about this, there needs to be a commitment to change what we’re doing and move on from a nonsensical approach to proper maintenance,” Mascio said.

Mastros pointed out there are two nuisance complaints currently pending in Jefferson County Common Pleas Court, while Hernon briefed council on how communities like Columbus are attacking the problem by using “heat maps” — prioritizing areas most prone to, say, gun violence and drug crimes and getting loans to address structural issues, then selling them.

“They said the challenge we have is too often there’s a misconception that there’s nothing we can do, but there’s always a way, it’s a question of time and money, how much money we want to allocate toward that,” he said.

“I don’t want to rain on the parade, but these properties we’re talking about, you’re not going to get a loan (to fix them up),” Mayo interjected.

Mascio said the properties Columbus is borrowing money to fix up are probably “more like commercial properties.”

“Bigger properties that have fallen into disrepair,” Hernon agreed, adding, “You’re not going to save everybody, you’re not going to be able to. The point is to get a broader approach, not one-size-fits-all.”

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