WILKES-BARRE — One strike. Two readings. Three speakers.
Mayor Tom Leighton’s plan to crack down on problem rental properties in Wilkes-Barre passed a second and final reading during a special council session Thursday night attended by a handful of residents, of whom only three spoke about the “one-strike” amendment to the city’s rental ordinance.
The ordinance will allow officials to shut down a property for six months if landlords and tenants know of criminal activity on the premises and fail to alert authorities. It will take effect Sept. 1.
“The intent is not to penalize landlords, but to increase dialogue,” said assistant city solicitor William E. Vinsko Jr., who drafted the legislation, which he called “another tool to curb drug activity and violence.”
The changes were approved by a 3-0 vote, with Chairman Bill Barrett, George Brown and Mike Merritt voting. Vice Chairman Tony George and member Maureen Lavelle were excused from the meeting.
Frank Sorick, president of the Wilkes-Barre Taxpayers Association, said he favors the concept, but expressed concerns about the details and implementation — particularly a provision holding that any notice “given to the agent, property manager or occupant shall be deemed as notice given to the owner,” and that “a claimed lack of knowledge by the owner, property manager or agent” will not stand as defense against closure of a rental unit.
“That doesn’t sit well with me: ‘Well, we handed your tenant something,’ ” Sorick said.
Vinsko replied that the city wants to “keep the duty on the occupant,” but that no property will be closed without due process.
“We still have to prove it,” Vinsko said of evidence required to close a building.
Sorick replied that while landlords stand to lose income, problem tenants could potentially evade the consequences of their actions by simply moving to another property.
“This is not going to be applied in a vacuum,” Vinsko said. “We’re confident the correct application of this will succeed.”
Wilkes-Barre Township resident Joe Mrozoski, who with his wife owns nine rental units in the city, wanted to know whether the law would be enforced against large landlords as well as small.
“If Sherman Hills has an incident or two, will they shut down the whole place?” Mrozoski asked about the complex, which consists of a high-rise building and eight three-story buildings off Coal Street.
As written, the legislation allows officials to close a single rental unit or an entire building. Vinsko replied that while he was not going to specifically answer the Sherman Hills question, officials will meet to ensure that “we are all on the same page” with respect to enforcement.
“This is as applicable to Sherman Hills as to any other rental property,” Barrett chimed in. “If there are issues there, they will be treated the same way.”
Leighton, who championed the move in the wake of a July 7 homicide on South Grant Street, was not present Thursday. That fact was not lost on Bob Kadluboski, a frequent critic of the administration who let loose a strident critique of the amendment when he took the podium as the third and final member of the public to speak about the change.
Kadluboski pointed out the American Civil Liberties Union already has raised concerns about the legislation. Predicting that it could result in a lawsuit against the city, he urged the council members to table the move.
“What’s the rush? What are we pushing this through for? The mayor sat right there and said crime is down,” Kadluboski said, referencing remarks the mayor made earlier this year with respect to crime statistics overall.
Council voted moments after he finished speaking.