Will the county's litter law work?

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   "Fifty feet, but it's got no teeth."
   That's one of the objections to Carter County's new litter law that Commissioner Tom "Yogi" Bowers, District 4, raised during last Monday's meeting of the county commission when he tried to table the motion to "work out the bugs."
   The commission approved the resolution 14-9, with Commissioner Chuck Culler absent due to illness. Commissioner Al Meehan, District 2, at first passed during the roll-call vote, but before the total was announced, changed his vote to "aye."
   Others voting against the litter resolution included: First District Commissioners Doug Buckles and Jack Buckles; Amos Stevens Jr., District 2; Jim Whaley and Joe Woods, District 3; Phillip Nave and Bowers, District 4; Terry Montgomery and John G. Lewis, District 6.
   Bowers, a captain on the Elizabethton Police force, is code enforcement officer for the City of Elizabethton. In his job, he naturally has been cursed at a time or two for handing out litter violations and once even had a hex put on him by a city resident he cited for health and safety violations.
   He said the planning committee is to be commended for all its hard work on writing the county's litter resolution, but he believes commissioners need to go back and look at the resolution a little more in depth and perhaps amend some of the language to make it more effective.
   Section 1(b) states that a person is in violation of the litter law if he "negligently places or throws glass, litter or other dangerous substances" on or within 50 feet of a public highway.
   "What if you've got a big pile of stuff, and the middle of the pile is 50 feet. Do you just remove half of it?" Bowers asked. Or, "if you've got a pile of junk or rubbish or trash -- rats running in and out of it, and it's standing full of stagnant water with mosquitoes hovering over it -- if it's 51 feet from the highway, it's like it doesn't even exist."
   The litter law is for the health and safety of the citizens of Carter County, Bowers said. "If it's 51 feet, does that makes it not a hazard? It's legitimate at 51 feet?" He has a problem with that.
   Another consideration is who will fill the role of county enforcement officer. Bowers thinks it should be a deputy sheriff or someone with judicial or enforcement powers. "It doesn't need to be a civilian. The city's tried it, and it didn't work," he said. He also thinks a full-time employee would have more than he could do. The county has proposed making it a part-time job.
   Bowers said there are code enforcement officers all over the country. Some police and sheriff's departments have entire divisions devoted just to code enforcement. Two years ago at an annual seminar of code enforcement officers in Chattanooga, Bowers said, a female lieutenant over code enforcement for a large city in Florida told the group that three officers from her department had been shot that year. "They were all three involving junk cars. People got irate and actually shot them," he said.
   Another problem, according to Bowers, is the Inspection Procedures state that the enforcement officer must receive at least three complaints from property owners living within 100 yards of the boundary of the property in question.
   "Why do you need a complaint from three property owners living within 100 yards? What if there's only two? Is it not a health hazard or safety hazard to them?" Bowers asked. "If anybody calls in and makes a complaint, it should be checked out. If there's something to it, take action; if there's nothing, mark it as 'unfounded' and go on back to business." At least, that's how it works in the city.
   Bowers said he also believes it should be the responsibility of the county attorney, rather than the hearing board or enforcement officer, to file any liens on properties the county is forced to clean up.