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Belleville approves occupancy-permit language after heated discussion

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Mark Eckert

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert speaks at City Hall in this 2006 file photo. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson of the Post-Dispatch

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Changes in wording to seemingly obscure housing-code regulations typically would not be expected to draw much public scrutiny or hand-wringing by elected officials.

But in the politically charged atmosphere currently swirling about Belleville’s City Hall, just about any issue or proposal might serve as a flash point for heated debate.

Mayor Mark Eckert, his political opponents and a number of residents took turns Tuesday night alternately attacking or defending a plan to strengthen provisions of the housing occupancy permit requirements of the city’s property maintenance code. After nearly two hours of often incendiary rhetoric, the City Council voted decisively to approve the changes, which supporters − including Eckert − said clarify occupancy-permit requirements that are part of the code.

Opponents of the bill, including some residents, landlords and council members, said the revisions represent an intrusion into privacy by forcing residents to state specifically on occupancy permits who is living in a home or other housing unit.

“The city should not be able to tell me or any homeowner who can come and stay, who can be there and who can’t,” said Alderman Lillian Schneider, one of Eckert’s most outspoken political opponents on the City Council.

But 13 of the city council’s 16 members agreed with Eckert that the language of the occupancy-permit rules is needed to deter crime, preserve housing quality and ensure public safety.

Under the revised language, the city added language stating that a housing occupancy permit can be issued for a residential unit only if the unit complies with city code. In addition, the permit must specifically identify any individuals who are “authorized to reside in said dwelling unit.”

Alderman Ken Kinsella, chairman of the City Council committee that crafted the code changes, said at Tuesday’s council meeting that the language only states specifically what existing regulations already required — that anyone applying for a housing occupancy permit must give complete and accurate information about who will live in the unit.

“The new language only spells out that those things must happen,” Kinsella said.

The new language in the code states that “the only individuals authorized to reside in a dwelling unit shall be the individuals listed on the occupancy permit.”

Supporters of the revisions also said they removed or softened language referring to occupancy involving adoption or birth of a child and “visitors” in a dwelling unit.

Eckert said the changes don’t signal the city’s intent to go “house to house” to evict grandparents who have moved in with their children, or investigate other commonplace additions or changes in household residency. He said the measure is designed to help housing officials and police in cases where complaints arise due to overcrowding, crime, disturbances or unsafe conditions.

“We’re looking for compliance,” Eckert said. “We want to abate the nuisance, abate the mess, clean it up and try to get these folks to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Joining Schneider in voting against the changes were aldermen Melinda Hult, also a frequent critic of Eckert’s administration, and Joseph Hayden, who is bidding to unseat Eckert in the April 9 city elections. Alderman Phil Elmore, who also is running for mayor, voted to approve the changes.

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