County Council takes a swipe at graffiti law

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Los Alamos > Code change targets perpetrators as well as property owners

By Arin McKenna

The Los Alamos County Council unanimously approved an amendment to county Code Ordinance No. 02-230 that prohibits graffiti vandalism and promotes its eradication.

Under the revised ordinance, vandalism resulting in less than $1,000 in damage is a petty misdemeanor and is punishable by a mandatory 100 hours of community service within a continuous six-month period immediately following conviction. The perpetrator also is required to make restitution to the property owner for the cost of damages and restoration.

Damages above $1,000 fall under New Mexico State statute sect. 30-15-1.1 and are a fourth degree felony.

However, during its Tuesday meeting, council took issue with the proposed penalties for failure to remove graffiti. They agreed that property owners should be held responsible for keeping their premises free of graffiti and with the county taking action if the property owner does not do so, but disagreed with the proposed penalty.

As written, failure to respond to the county’s written notice within 10 days or remove graffiti within 30 days would have been a petty misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of no more than $500 and/or up to 90 days in jail. That was protested during public comment by resident James Rickman, whose neighborhood has been the target of graffiti vandals several times.

“This ordinance victimizes the victim twice … the penalty to the property owner is exactly the same as the penalty to the graffiti artist. That’s just wrong on several levels,” Rickman said.

Rickman pointed out that it can cost as much or more to clean up graffiti as the maximum fine for a petty misdemeanor and that those whose neighborhood is targeted repeatedly could have thousands of dollars worth of cleanup costs.

Councilors Frances Berting and Pete Sheehey agreed with Rickman, that having the same penalty for perpetrators and victims amounted to re-victimizing the victims.

Councilor David Izraelevitz pointed out that property owners would have the option of saying the markings did not constitute vandalism because they had authorized it. Izraelevitz and other councilors were concerned with absentee landlords and those unwilling to maintain their property.

“As a homeowner, you have obligations to take care of your property,” Councilor Kristin Henderson said. “The reason we have an enforcement mechanism is we have property owners who are not responsible, and it affects other people in our community. We’ve had some out-of-state property owners who don’t live here and just don’t care. That literally affects the property value of the people around them.”

Councilors were also concerned that the proposed ordinance did not provide a mechanism for the county to be reimbursed for cleaning a property.

Sheehey made a motion to adopt the ordinance with the section about charging delinquent property owners with a petty misdemeanor stricken out and revising it to read:

“Removal or complete obliteration of graffiti by the county shall obligate the owner to reimburse the county. Failure to do so may result in a lien being placed upon the property by the county.”

“I think this does address the problem. We avoid criminalizing the victim, however we make it clear that we expect this to be cleaned up in a timely fashion,” Sheehey said. “I think the county can show some lenience if there are extenuating circumstances. We don’t have to impose a lien, we don’t have to bill. But we are saying we expect the property owners to work with us.”

Henderson proposed two friendly amendments. One amendment imposes a $500 penalty on the property owner if the county cleans up the property.

“Without some penalty to the homeowner, we basically set up a system where the county just does the work. They can say to the county, okay, you do it. There’s no penalty if they don’t,” Henderson said.

The other amendment added “agent in charge” as a responsible party. Councilors agreed that penalties should not fall on an occupant such as a renter.

Both amendments were adopted.

Councilors also noted that sometimes graffiti on county buildings is not removed promptly and directed staff to address that issue.

In other business, council unanimously approved a motion to locate the teen center at the community building, completing a process which included two failed proposals.

Council rejected a plan for a new 18,000-square-foot facility costing $8,782,000 during the Capital Improvements Projects hearings in May 2012.

Staff and teen center supporters returned with a plan to rent 9,000-square-feet of space at Central Park Square. Improvements to the space were estimated to cost $4 million. However, the county was unable to reach an agreement with the owners of the property.

The proposal to relocate the center at the community building received enthusiastic support.
Staff estimates that the $4 million allotted for the center is adequate to cover $2 million worth of upgrades to the building for such things as a new HVAC system, ADA compliance and improvement to the façade. Staff assured council that the building is structurally sound and that the investment will assure 15 to 20 years additional life for the structure.

Not having to pay rent for the space potentially frees up money for additional programming. The central location and possible benefit to surrounding businesses were also selling points.

Staff will now begin the planning and design process for renovating the building.

Council also agreed to table a proposal for moving one bi-monthly council meeting to Friday afternoon until the logistics could be further refined.