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Dealing with the ‘worst of the worst’


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We understand why Baker City Police Chief Wyn Lohner has asked the City Council to pass an ordinance that could allow the city to seek a court order temporarily banning access, including by the owner, to properties where certain crimes or code violations frequently happen.

But we also understand why several city residents told councilors Tuesday they oppose the ordinance and don’t want to give that considerable power to the city.

First, we believe the problems Lohner hopes to address with the ordinance are real but relatively rare. He told councilors that he proposed the ordinance based on cases where neighbors have complained repeatedly about a specific property, what he referred to as the “worst of the worst.” We suspect every town has such places — homes where crimes, typically drug offenses among them, are common. Lohner told the Herald that these homes also tend to run afoul of the city’s property maintenance ordinance, which prohibits residents from using their property as a de facto landfill.

Police can, and do, arrest people at such homes, of course, but in many cases the people arrested don’t actually live on the property. Arresting visitors doesn’t necessarily discourage the property owner, or tenant, from addressing the recurring problems.

We believe the city has an obligation to deal with properties that become magnets for crime. People who live near such homes shouldn’t have to deal with constant issues, some of which, such as drug manufacturing, can threaten neighbors. The ordinance Lohner proposed should give owners of such properties a strong incentive to take action before the city goes to the Baker Justice Court seeking an order blocking access to the property for 3 to 12 months.

Lohner said he doesn’t expect that would happen often, and after reading the ordinance we agree that its most severe sanction would rarely be enforced. The ordinance not only requires the city to go through multiple steps before it even seeks a court order, but it also gives the property owner multiple chances to deal with the problems and forestall further city action. The ordinance certainly doesn’t give city officials a free hand in shuttering homes.

Baker City’s proposed ordinance is nearly identical to one that’s been in place in Springfield since July 2014. Although Springfield’s population is more than 6 times as large as Baker City’s — 60,140 compared with 9,890 — Springfield has sought, and received, just two court orders to ban access to properties in more than 3 years.

We believe the ordinance, which the City Council tabled on Tuesday, would serve as an effective deterrent and help prevent properties from becoming places where crimes are chronic and neighbors suffer accordingly.

But if that didn’t happen — if, as some residents suggested Tuesday, the police department abused its newfound authority and targeted people who aren’t criminals but simply can’t maintain their properties — those abuses wouldn’t happen in secret.

Enforcing the ordinance, whether that means the city mailing warning letters to property owners or seeking a closure order in court, would be a public process. And we’re confident that if the city employed the ordinance in a clearly unfair way — if it didn’t focus on the “worst of the worst” — the public outcry would force the City Council to act.

Ordinances can be revoked just as they can be approved.

From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of publisher Kari Borgen, editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.