Getting tougher on problem party houses in Lawrence may get a little easier.
City commissioners tonight are set to consider changes to the city's disorderly house ordinance after neighbors in several of the city's older neighborhoods complained the current version was largely a waste of everybody's time.
"We think this one is enforceable," Tom Harper, a member of the Centennial Neighborhood Assn., said of the proposed changes. "I think this ordinance can help our neighborhood be a good place to live."
The proposed changes would remove some of the legal hurdles that currently must be cleared before a property can be declared disorderly, leading to fines of up to $1,000 and allowing city utilities to be shut off.
Neighbors - especially those in Centennial, University Place and Oread - complained the ordinance was too cumbersome to be effective. They pointed to the fact that in the five years the law has been on the books, no one has been prosecuted under the ordinance.
"I think people started saying, 'It's not working, so what's the point?'" said Candice Davis, a member of the Oread Neighborhood Assn. "I think everybody sort of gave up on it, both the neighbors and the police."
City attorneys confirmed no one has been prosecuted but said the threat of prosecution has caused some disorderly homes to be improved.
The current ordinance requires a house be the site of at least two crimes - ranging from noise violations to more serious felony crimes - within a one-year period. Neighbors had complained it was next to impossible to have two separate crimes charged, prosecuted and convicted within 12 months.
Neighbors also were concerned that when an individual reached a diversion agreement, that agreement couldn't be used as evidence that the property was a disorderly house. The new ordinance would allow diversions to count against a property.
The second change would allow city prosecutors to charge either a tenant or the property owners with the disorderly house crime as soon as they believed a second crime had been committed at the home. Under the current ordinance, prosecutors must wait until a conviction has been rendered in the second crime. With the new ordinance, prosecutors would be allowed to show evidence of the second crime as part of the disorderly house trial. The changes also would allow prosecutors to move ahead on a case if three separate charges were made at a house stemming from a single event. The current ordinance requires at least two separate events on different days.
City Commissioner David Schauner said he supported changing the ordinance because he agreed it was too tough to prosecute. But he said whether the new ordinance will be effective will depend on whether the Police Department has the tools to enforce the ordinance. If the police don't have the ability to know when a home has been the site of two crimes, the ordinance still won't be used very often, Schauner predicted.
Scott Miller, an attorney within the city's Legal Services Department, said the Police Department's ability to do such tracking was still a "work in progress," but was improving.
Schauner, though, said he hoped the city would take additional measures to improve livability in older neighborhoods. He wants city staff members in the next year to show the commission how it could offer tax credits to people looking to fix up older homes in target neighborhoods, with the condition the homes remain owner-occupied.
"If we're trying to bring back older neighborhoods and retain their viability, we need to do something different than we're doing now," Schauner said.
City commissioners will discuss the disorderly house ordinance at their meeting that begins at 6:35 p.m. tonight at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.