By Stan Welch
At a special called meeting Tuesday night, the Pelzer Town Council voted to adopt a series of county ordinances as their own. The vote was conditional and tentative, in light of information presented by Town Attorney Jimmy King.
The council has been studying the question of enacting ordinances governing such issues as weed control, littering, building codes, unfit dwellings, manufactured homes and parks, and junkyards and open storage.
The absence of a municipal court, and the inability to fund one, left the council with few options; with the main one being to adopt county ordinances verbatim and let the county enforce them.
According to Mayor Scott and other members of the council, county officials including Administrator Rusty Burns and County Attorney Leon Harmon agreed verbally to assume all responsibility for enforcement of the adopted ordinances, as well as collecting and administering all fines.
The County Administrator does not share that recollection. “I don’t recall any such meeting, but I will check with Mr. Harmon,” Burns said. “The first I recall hearing about this was when Mr. King contacted Mr. Harmon earlier this week,” said Burns in a telephone conversation following Tuesday night’s meeting.
Nevertheless, with that supposed assurance in mind, following Mayor Scott’s reading of the ordinances by title, the council moved quickly to vote, causing attorney King to interrupt. He reminded the Mayor that discussion was called for prior to the vote, adding that he had information to present.
He then proceeded to inform the council that, according to his communications with Harmon earlier that same day, the county had indicated no such willingness to assume total responsibility for enforcement. “I would caution council that the county is not yet ready to assume responsibility for enforcement of these ordinances within the town limits of Pelzer,” King said.
Scott then raised the matter of a meeting held weeks earlier in which he claimed that Burns, Harmon, and assistant county administrator Holt Hopkins all agreed that the county would indeed enforce the ordinances. King did not dispute Scott’s account, but stressed that his discussions with Harmon during the day were totally different.
“That is simply not what I was told today, Mayor. As you know, I wasn’t present at the earlier meeting, but as of today, there is no agreement for the county to enforce these ordinances.”
Also during the ensuing exchanges, Mayor Scott came to the belated realization that the ordinances in question were criminal in nature. “I thought these were civil ordinances. I did not realize that people would be charged with crimes,” said the mayor.
King assured him that the ordinances were indeed criminal in scope, and could result in convictions of misdemeanors by those charged and tried. Scott was clearly disturbed by the information, and questioned King about it for several minutes.
Complicating the issue is the fact that second and final reading of the ordinance to accept the county ordinances requires a public hearing prior to the final vote. That public hearing is scheduled for August 14, prior to a regular council meeting, at which the final vote would likely be taken.
Attorney King indicated that the county attorney planned to research the issue of assuming enforcement within town limits and might not have an answer by that date.
King also reminded the council that the absence of a tax base in the town makes enforcement more problematic. “In cases where, for example, the owners of overgrown lots are contacted but refuse to address the problem, one common solution is for the town to cleanup the lot and add the cost to the tax bill. Pelzer doesn’t have that option because they have no tax base.”
Scott conceded that the lack of a court system and funds to establish one was the reason they were voting on the county ordinances. “We’re doing this so we don’t have to have a court and all that expense” he said.
Finally, on the advice of King, the council chose not to table the motion. Instead, they gave first reading approval by title only, with the condition that, if written confirmation of enforcement wasn’t received from the county by the August 14 meeting, they would take no further action.
“Nothing is law here until second and final reading is approved. So, if the county does not commit in writing, you simply drop the matter,” said King. The vote was 5-0.