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City council takes a pass at updating chronic nuisance rules

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The La Crosse Common Council took a step toward reforming the city’s chronic nuisance policy Thursday night.

The council did not adopt the complete update proposed by city staff, but did accept some of the changes after debate over transparency.

Chronic nuisance properties are defined by the city as a property that has three or more nuisance incidents within a year.

Officials are currently required by ordinance to notify a property that it has reached this designation, but staff were hoping to loosen this requirement to better prioritize resources.

The original amendment before the council Thursday changed language slightly to read that officials “may” notify property owners instead of “shall,” essentially allowing police or fire officials to use their discretion on which cases to pursue.

Rebecca Schwarz

La Crosse Common Council member Rebecca Schwarz

“We’re trying to be more effective and thoughtful of when we’re pursuing chronic nuisance premise,” said Ellen Atterbury, the city’s assistant attorney.

Examples of differences in cases included not pursuing a property that hasn’t kept up with mowing or shoveling over a property that may be compromising public safety.

Sergeant Steve Curns told the council that the department already tries to deal with an issue before it’s deemed a chronic nuisance.

“To be quite frank it’s a lot of paperwork and it’s quite a pain in terms of tracking, documentation, making sure that we are in-line with every exact portion of the ordinance. There’s a lot of intricacies that take a great deal of documentation,” Curns said.

“So the ‘shall’ was rather unrealistic. The ‘may’ allows us the discretion to say, you know we’ve tried the cooperative route,” Curns said. “This allows one more tool in the toolbox to try and help bring them on board and resolve the issue collectively.”

Council member Rebecca Schwarz said it felt “a little too squishy,” though, concerned that the reasons why officials may pursue one case but not another may not be clearly defined enough to be fair.

La Crosse Common Council member Chris Kahlow

Kahlow

“What is the protection for that property owner or that resident?” Schwarz said. “I’m going to assume that we’re all going to have our community’s best interest in making these decisions, but I’m not seeing a protection here should someone’s best interest not be in the decision-maker’s mind in that moment.”

Other officials disagreed that more definitions were necessary.

“I trust the city attorney’s department, and I trust the police department and I trust the fire department in knowing which you need to move forward with and really prosecute,” said council member Chris Kahlow.

A motion to refer the legislation for a month failed without a second and instead officials voted to maintain the word “shall” for the time being.

“The importance of ‘shall’ promises some equity,” said council member Mark Neumann.

Schwarz emphasized that maintaining this language doesn’t immediately address the need to optimize city resources, but thought clearer guidelines were important.

The city council instead essentially only approved reframing the ordinance as it is by moving the definition of what is deemed a chronic nuisance property to the top of the page and cleaning up some of the language.

City staff said that this is just a small step in an ongoing effort to improve the system.

"We're trying to be more effective and thoughtful of when we're pursuing chronic nuisance premise."

Ellen Atterbury, city's assistant attorney

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