Portland's neighborhood prosecutor in no hurry to fine property owners who ignore graffiti

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PORTLAND — Trish McAllister, the city’s neighborhood prosecutor, says the graffiti ordinance passed in July is working well – at least in terms of getting city employees to report and remove graffiti from public property.

McAllister said there have been 35 reports of graffiti on public property, with the majority of reports generated by city staff. The graffiti has been removed by public service employees in 26 cases.

But McAllister said the ordinance doesn’t seem to be working as well for graffiti on private property. There have been 29 letters sent to private property owners, but only seven responses.

At a recent Public Safety Committee meeting, McAllister said she believes the removal of the civil penalties is the reason private property owners have failed to address graffiti.

“Taking out the civil penalty really took the teeth out of the ordinance,” she said.

City Councilors Edward Suslovic and John Coyne, two members of the committee, both opposed the removal of the fines when the ordinance first went to the council. They encouraged McAllister to ask the council to reinstate the fines as soon as new councilors are sworn into office.

“I felt the case had been made effectively for reasonable penalties after every reasonable effort had been made to secure voluntary compliance,” Suslovic said.

Some councilors supported removing the fines from the ordinance because none were contained in South Portland’s ordinance, which was the city’s model.

Although private property owners have no reason to comply or even respond to the city’s letter, McAllister said on Friday that she will wait until the ordinance has been in effect for a full year before bringing anything to the council.

“My feeling, as neighborhood prosecutor, is we’ve really held property owners accountable for a lot of things this year,” she said. “I think we should at least give them a break. Let’s see how this ordinance goes for a year and evaluate at that point.”

Earlier this year, the city changed its ordinances to force landlords to remove abandoned property within 24 hours of being notified by the city or face fines.

Later, the city made it easier to designate problem properties as disorderly houses. It originally took eight police calls to one property within a 30-day period for the designation.

But that was scuttled in April in favor of a tiered system. Now it takes only three police calls for buildings of five or fewer units, four calls for buildings with six to 10 units, and five calls for buildings with 11 or more units.

McAllister said there are 25 disorderly houses in the city, only two of which present ongoing problems.

Most landlords are willing to work with the city to remove problem tenants, set up tenant screening procedures and instituting other city-approved measures, she said.

McAllister said she sees no hurry in seeking fines for private property owners who do not comply with the graffiti ordinance, since passing the ordinance led to heightened awareness about the impact of graffiti.

She also said the city’s online graffiti reporting system, portland-police.com/graffitireport.asp, is allowing authorities to compile a database of graffiti tags, so if someone is caught, they can be charged appropriately.

“I think we can wait,” McAllister said. “I think we’re seeing some positive strides in the city, from various (property) owners and entities.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings