Chris Menapace

In proposing to indefinitely postpone legislation amending the city's stormwater ordinance, Councilman Chris Menapace said that he did not think passing a piece of legislation "based on what we think" is a good thing to do.

MOUNT VERNON — After garnering a lot of attention in previous sessions, Ordinance 2019-30 met a quiet demise in Monday's council meeting.

The ordinance amends the penalties for violating the city's stormwater rules. It increases the penalty amounts as well as allows the city to place a lien against the property for any unpaid amounts.

In recommending to postpone the legislation indefinitely, Councilman Chris Menapace said he has heard nothing in the last three weeks to change his opinion about the legislation.

"I think this is a piece of legislation that we do not need," he said during a Utilities Committee meeting. "There are too many moving parts. ... I don't want to create chaos."

Mayor Richard Mavis said the original intent of the amendment was to offer a softer approach vs. filing criminal charges, the only option under the current ordinance.

"If you get a charge that is more than they can pay, the last thing we want is to haul them off to jail," he said. "The purpose when we first started all of this is to make it easier for people to pay ... give them an opportunity to make it over a hump and not have to pay everything at the same time."

The city's MS4 stormwater permit expires today, but the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has granted an automatic extension. City Engineer Brian Ball said that every time the EPA renews the permit, it updates and tightens its requirements.

In previous meetings with the EPA, the EPA directed the city to focus on regular stormwater inspections and to fine property owners who are out of compliance. Ball said that in going through that process, the city is discovering the weaknesses in its current ordinance. The language in the amended ordinance is similar to that recommended by the EPA for MS4 renewal.

"In my opinion, the ultimate goal is to get compliance," said Mendapace. "Do we need to change legislation before we really know what the EPA says? What is it to wait another two or three weeks?"

Ball pointed out that council previously updated its property enforcement code to include a civil vs criminal approach to collecting fines and assessments.

"You have given [Property Enforcement Officer] Mr. Bemiller these tools, and he's readily using them, and we are getting good performance," he told council. "We are asking you to give us a softer approach vs filing criminal charges."

Auditor Terry Scott and Law Director Rob Broeren agree a civil approach is more cost-effective than a criminal approach.

"Any time you have to go to a criminal solution, it may or may not be with in-house counsel," said Scott.

Broeren said it requires much more time on the part of the legal and engineering staffs to demonstrate the significantly increased burden of proof required in a criminal action.

Councilwoman Nancy Vail said she did not see the need for anything less than criminal charges.

"I think we are putting our citizens at risk [with this ordinance]," she said.

Councilman Sam Barone, who favors the amended ordinance because it changes the city's approach to unpaid fines from a prosecutorial to a conciliatory one, initially opposed Menapace's proposal to indefinitely table the ordinance. He withdrew his objection after learning that similar language will be included in the stormwater utility legislation when it is ultimately presented.

In its legislative session, council unanimously voted to postpone the ordinance indefinitely. Postponing indefinitely effectively kills the legislation. If council wants to revisit the issue, it will have to start over again with new legislation.

At the conclusion of the legislative session, Menapace gave council members a packet containing the concept of what a stormwater utility might look like. He emphasized the language was a concept, not legislation or draft legislation.

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