Commission strikes down penalty provision from sewer amendment

City to bring revised version up for future vote

By: Robert Guttersohn | Royal Oak Review | Published August 21, 2013

ROYAL OAK — The City Commission did not approve an amendment to the sewer and sewage disposal ordinance Aug. 12 that would have potentially criminalized a resident whose faulty sewer connection damaged the public sewer.

The amendment was one of three that were on their second reading in front of the City Commission. Two of them, which dealt with the placement of drains in residential developments and cleaned up language regarding billing, were approved unanimously and are now part of the ordinance.

But the penalty provision, which would have potentially penalized owners with a misdemeanor if their sewer issues damaged the public line, was struck from the package of amendments.

The proposed amendment read that violators are “guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or up to 90 days in jail, in the discretion of the court. Every day that a violation continues to exist shall be deemed a separate offense.”

The city is expected to bring a revised version of the provision, which will include language defining a violation as “willful intent” to damage the public sewer and to not work with the city in its repair, for vote at a future meeting. It will have to be reintroduced and voted on twice, officials said.

City Attorney David Gillam said the proposed penalty provision would have allowed the city greater leverage in enforcing reluctant property owners who have the means to repair their damaged line and the city’s damaged line to do so.

“These are the exceptional cases,” Gillam said.

He said there are already parts of the sewer ordinance that are enforced via the threat of a criminal charge, but he can’t remember a time when they’ve had to press charges for violations. He called it a last resort.

“These are serious health and safety issues that need to be addressed,” Gillam said.

Gillam added that there would have been interaction between the city and a homeowner whose sewer line caused damage, and further action would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

A majority of commissioners criticized the amendment, including commissioners who approved it at first reading. They said it left too much discretion to the administration on when it would and would not press charges.

Commissioner Mike Fournier said that there are times when the city needs to go after those who knowingly damage the public sewer line.

“It’s OK to criminalize a situation where the public health is at stake, and clearly there is someone who has been neglectful,” Fournier said. “I don’t think anybody would disagree with that, in concept.”

But he added that there must be language that clearly defines against whom the city will actually press charges.

“I just want some clear methodology to make me feel a little more comfortable with this third part,” Fournier said. “That way, we’re not leaving it up to the interpretation of staff. Rather, it’s explicit in the ordinance.”

Residents criticized the amendment during public comment.

Eileen Patra, a Royal Oak homeowner for 40 years, said she was “appalled” by the ordinance.

“We have many people who may have difficulty making that repair in a timely manner,” Patra said.

She said potentially criminalizing people would only compound the issue.

“It just doesn’t help me pay the $10,000 repair if I’m in jail,” she said.