By Frank Lewis
Portsmouth City Solicitor John Haas has taken steps to attempt to stave off the shadow of a lawsuit filed against the city, the City Health Department, its director Chris Smith, and Director of Environmental Services Andy Gedeon, on behalf of several citizens who own multiple properties, charging the city’s rental housing mandatory inspection fee is unconstitutional.
Haas presented legislation to Portsmouth City Council to amend the rule and change the inspection from mandatory to voluntary.
The new wording reads in part, “A rental dwelling permit shall be issued by the code enforcement official, if upon inspection voluntarily permitted by the owner, occupant or other person in charge of the rental dwelling it is determined that the rental dwelling meets the requirements of this code or the owner signs a statement certifying the rental dwelling meets the requirements of this code.”
Haas said the changes are not something he thinks the general public would have any difficulty with.
“They basic provide that the inspection of the rental property licensing program, any inspection will be on a consensual basis subject to inspections provided under a warrant should a warrant be necessary,” Haas said. “The changes will require the city to obtain a warrant to perform an inspection unless either the tenant or the other consents to an inspection.”
That inspection schedule will also change from every year to every three years to accommodate any legal matters.
The suit had been filed by Maurice Thompson of the Center for Constitutional Law, on behalf of James Ronald Baker, Nancy Ross, Darren Oliver, Baker Family Holdings, LLC, Radiant Sales, Inc. Howard LLC, and Oliver II Properties, LLC, in United States District Court for the Southern Division of Ohio, Western Division in Cincinnati on Thursday.
The specifics of the suit call for “declaratory judgment, temporary restraining order, preliminary and permanent injunction, actual and nominal damages, and other relief arising from the unconstitutional policies, practices, and threats of defendants city of Portsmouth, Christopher Smith and Andrew Gedeon. Defendants’ policies, practices, and conduct threaten plaintiffs with irreparable harm to their rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The harm may only be remedied by a ruling from this court.”
Haas said he believes the court will look favorably on the city for taking steps to remedy the assumed problem with the code. Haas also asked Council to put the item on the fast track and suspend the rule requiring three readings and to pass it Monday night because of time constraints.
“The reason for that is the court indicated that there was a motion for a restraining order against the city to proceed under our Rental Licensing Program,” Haas said. “And rather than decide that, if the ordinance is changed that would alleviate the judge requiring to have the hearing, obviously reduce the amount of work and expense involved in defending that matter.”
Council suspended the rules and immediately passed the ordinance to change the code.
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 1928, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt