Editorials

Discretion keeps Belleville from ticketing babies, but lets students move in

Complaint raised about Belleville occupancy permits

Rick Brown complains about Belleville's occupancy-permit ordinance before a city committee, which declined to change the ordinance Tuesday night.
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Rick Brown complains about Belleville's occupancy-permit ordinance before a city committee, which declined to change the ordinance Tuesday night.

There are rules. There is enforcement. There is public outcry when the rules are unflinchingly applied.

Red-light cameras are the perfect enforcement tool. No one gets cut any slack. You run the light, you get a ticket. What could be more fair?

But they draw the scrutiny of the ACLU. State legislatures go to work banning them, worried about privacy issues, money grabs and irate constituents.

Put a cop on that corner and she uses her discretion about ticketing. Person sped up and was reckless: ticket. Person was cautious but a little late: no ticket.

So discretion can be a good thing that furthers people’s sense of right and wrong.

Rick Brown, Belleville’s long time thorn over housing issues, recently raised concerns about a 2013 rewrite of the city’s housing occupancy rules. If the rules are uniformly enforced, then everyone with any changes in their household should be reporting that change and would be subject to a $50 occupancy permit and $60 re-inspection if it had been more than a year since the last inspection.

New baby, new wife, ailing parent, unemployed college grad daughter moving home all would trigger the change and inspection — if the rules were unstintingly and uniformly enforced.

Not so, say city leaders. Housing inspectors are fair.

“These guys are using discretion,” said Alderman Roger Wigginton, chairman of the city’s Ordinance and Legal Review Committee. The committee was reviewing the 2013 changes to see if they needed to be changed, but decided not. “I see this as a solid ordinance. They’re following the law.”

Brown countered that discretion is dangerous. It leads to abuses that benefit or target certain residents.

“‘Well if I know this guy, hey he’s not going to have to have an inspection and if I know this guy, or if I feel sorry for this guy,’ that’s equal protection violation,” Brown said.

Discretion by Belleville leaders let Lindenwood students move into more than 50 properties without the proper permits. You saw the furor that caused.

Discretion let the Rob Nora apartment owners slide on by until the ceiling fell in on a resident. That became an emergency.

Discretion in the wrong hands can be a political weapon.

Maybe city leaders shouldn’t treat this as a dead issue. An ordinance cannot cover every instance, but it can be legal and just and capture the community’s spirit of fairness.

It doesn’t appear Belleville is there yet.

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