Upper Marlboro considers town charter amendment
Commissioners want power to give town citations, but residents worry process will be burdensome
Upper Marlboro town commissioners are considering changing local laws to allow them to give violators municipal infractions rather than misdemeanors, which they said would boost compliance.
During a town hall meeting Tuesday, commissioners said the change would let the town fix minor violations of the town's charter — such as mowing someone's front lawn if the grass has grown too high — and add the cost of the work to the violator's taxes. The town could also issue fines and take uncooperative residents to a special court for municipal infractions at the Prince George's County District Court in Hyattsville.
Currently, the charter requires that local laws be enforced with misdemeanor penalties. Commissioners said it is often easy for violators to get off the hook if they contest those penalties in court and said commissioners are often left with a choice between ignoring the problem or having the violator arrested.
Michael Gonnella, the town's chief of police, said Wednesday the town has not issued citations for anything besides parking violations in months because the town does not want to charge residents with misdemeanors — which often carry jail time — for minor infractions.
"We don't want it to be a misdemeanor if you don't mow your grass," he said.
But some residents said they worry the municipal citations, which would be prosecuted by the Prince George's County State's Attorney's Office, would take too long to enforce or take up too much time for town police officers who have to show up in court to testify.
"One of your officers is going to be in Hyattsville all the time," said Helen Ford, a town resident and a former commissioner. "You're going to get wrapped around an axel… if you get into code enforcement."
Stephen Sonnett, Town Commission president, said the town would use discretion in giving out the municipal citations.
"It's an arrow in the quiver that we need," Sonnett said. "You want to get the person to comply [with] the law. Not just punish them — to comply."
During the meeting Tuesday, town commissioners also debated the commission president's proposal to spend thousands of dollars to rearrange and reword the town's ordinances, which Sonnett said would make them easier to understand.
Commissioner George Leonnig said he was skeptical about Sonnett's proposal to spend between $4,000 and $5,000 to codify the charter over a period of six to eight months, saying the idea is too expensive and will take up too much time for the town's government.
"I don't think at this time I can buy that [proposal]," Leonnig said. "We do have screaming needs, but this is not precisely one of them, as I understand it."
"There are new amendments, and it's pretty confusing," Sonnett said. "I think it's money well spent."
Further discussion of both proposals is planned for later town meetings.
In other town business, Sonnett said he has formally hired a fifth town police officer, retired Maryland State Police Trooper Dwayne Lee, who will start working on the force in the next couple of weeks.
Commissioners also discussed projects that could be included in next year's budget, including raising parking meter fees, fixing cracks in roads and fixing the town's dilapidated Public Works building, and they voted to send a letter to the Prince George's County Historic Preservation Commission requesting a study of historic sites within the town's limits.
The next town hall meeting is scheduled for June 9.
E-mail Greg Holzheimer at email@example.com.