Scranton Ordinance: “Quality Of Life” Restore-r, or New Revenue Gatherer

Scranton’s financial woes are well-known to Scranton residents and those in greater Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) alike. Since taking office, Mayor “former tax collector” Courtright has appeared to be looking for any opportunity to siphon even more money from Scrantonians. In the former administration of Evan vs. Doherty, not much got done, but that tended to be a result of constant deadlock between a warring legislature and executive. It would appear that the current council sees things the same way Courtright does. However, they have dressed up “revenue enhancement” in altruistic clothes.

Scranton City Council passed an ordinance that they claim is meant to combat blight in Scranton. Problems arise once you extend the list of offenses beyond the violations that have been reported thus far. We are correctly told that penalties range from $50 to $1,000. Obviously, that does not sound like a small chunk of change. So, what is covered under this “quality of life” ordinance and inevitable ticketing?

Here is the information that is on the ticket, posted online by a Scranton activist, but confirmed by the Gazette to be 100 percent accurate:

Scranton Quality of Life ticket_2015

This is what is truncated from the picture to the right of the new quality of life citation:

“Failure to remit payment within the time frame listed above shall result in a late fee being imposed in the amount of 10% of the ticket amount per day up to 10 days. Failure of the person to make payment within 10 days of the date of a violation ticket shall result in the filing of a citation, for failure to pay, with the Magisterial District Judge. If violations are continuous or egregious, code officials have the right to issue citations without first issuing tickets, provided notice has been given.”

Obviously, that seems awfully vague for such sweeping authority, ticket costs, and consequences. Unfortunately, another problem exists in that the offenses are not indicated with enough specificity. One resident has stated that she attempted to find out the details of the violations, but to no avail.

This Scranton resident contacted the licensing department at city hall, but they passed the buck to council chambers, simply relaying council’s phone number. She was eventually told that she would need to pay $2.75 for a full copy of the ordinance. So Scrantonians must pay to learn the details about woefully vague violations that they might already be violating totally unawares, thus potentially paying for two things: the violation fines and the copy of the violations to know if you might be violating the ordinance. It’s okay if your head is spinning, too.

In the Scranton City Council meeting minutes of December 18, council members stated that they based their interest in and subsequent passage of the quality of life ordinance on similar legislation adopted in 2013 by Hazleton.

Very little information can be found concerning the actual effectiveness or usefulness of such ordinances. The QoL ordinance has been adopted in both Reading and Mahanoy City, with seemingly minor variances. Schuylkill Township also attempted to pass a QoL ordinance, but it was defeated. Reading and Hazleton have posted their ordinances to their city’s websites, with Reading’s being displayed in a Powerpoint-like slideshow. Reading adopted their QoL ordinance in 2010.

Scranton’s QoL ordinance can be found here:

With even a short swim through the sea of wording, certain language stands out as troublesome, or potentially so.

“Includes, but is not limited to . . . dirt, mud and yard waste that has been abandoned or improperly discarded, deposited, or disposed.”

There are many offenses listed — and this is only an excerpt — but dirt and mud as a violation?

A section for weeds is included in the measure, which is a small component of most zoning ordinances, but Scranton’s variant seems more elaborate than most zoning regulations:

All grasses, annual plants, and vegetation, which meet any of the following criteria:
(1) Exceed eight inches in height.
(2) Exhale unpleasant noxious odors or pollen, such as ragweed, dandelion, and miscellaneous other vegetation commonly referred to as “weeds” or “brush.”
(3) May conceal filthy deposits or serve as breeding places for mosquitoes, other insects, or vermin.
(4) Encroach onto neighboring properties by way of leaders or roots without the property owners’ consent.”

There is also a questionable segment on motor vehicles that seems vague enough to be subject to wide interpretation, depending upon the officer or official enforcing the code.

“Motor vehicles. It shall be unlawful to store, park, or place any unregistered, uninspected, inoperative, unlicensed, or nuisance motor vehicle on any premises. No vehicle shall at any time be in a state of major disassembly, disrepair, or in the process of being stripped or dismantled.

You can be hit with a $100 ticket, initially, for any one of these violations:

“(20) Swimming pools. Swimming pools shall be maintained in good repair at all times. They shall also be kept clean, safe, covered, and sanitary as well.”

Graffiti is addressed but the subsection does sound a bit odd in the grand scheme of things:

“(27) (a) It shall be the responsibility of the owner to restore said surface to an approved state of maintenance and repair.”

Also, you do not have to be home when the city issues you a violation. The ordinance states that “leaving or affixing the notice or violation ticket to the property”, leaving it at your workplace, or mailing it you are all valid means of notification.

“Each day one of these violations continues ‘may constitute a separate offense’ for which a ‘separate fine’ may be imposed. If you go to court over the violation and lose, you could pay between $300 and $1,000 on each offense, or put in jail for 90 days, or both. The judge can order you to pay the City’s costs of collection and citation proceedings, and also pay the City’s ‘reasonable attorneys’ fees’ associated prosecution.”

Unfortunately, most citizens (including this writer) could not find this portion of the new Scranton law by a simple Google search. In fact, for this article, the municipal code website listed above was found posted on Facebook in the comments section of a Facebook page. Unfortunately, you might want to dedicate an hour or several just to get through the entire ordinance.

It does not seem like there was much research done, or public opinion sought, as few people are aware of this ordinance. Even less are aware of the details.

This should concern every Scranton resident, but considering that similar measures are spreading throughout the state, everyone should be researching the quality of life ordinances.

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