Harford County residents and other stakeholders warned that a proposal to tighten oversight of rental property owners would be intrusive and fail to help fight foreclosures and unkempt properties.
About half a dozen people spoke against the bill, put forth by Councilman Dion Guthrie, at Tuesday's Harford County Council meeting. Several others, including Sheriff Jesse Bane, testified in support of the legislation.
When Council President Billy Boniface asked for a show of hands from the audience, about 15 people raised their hands as being opposed to the bill. Roughly five indicated they supported it.
Guthrie tried to defend the legislation by arguing it would not affect the municipalities, contrary to "ridiculous" documents he said have been sent out by Patrick McGrady, an Aberdeen property manager who has steered the county's Campaign for Liberty group, which is affiliated with the Tea Party movement. McGrady was present at the hearing but did not speak.
The legislation would let the county inspect rental properties and require property owners to file contact information for the owner, a description of the rental property and a designated owner agent for receiving information from the county.
If an inspector found a property to be unsafe or unlawful, owners or tenants would have 45 days to bring a property into compliance.
The county would be required to give owners and tenants written notice of the inspection plan, including information on a public hearing for the plan. Hearings would be held at least 30 days after the notice is mailed.
Property owners would have the right to a hearing before the county director of administration. Requests for hearings must be sent within 15 days of the report's receipt to the county.
The bill states rental properties could be in a geographic area designated by the director of administration, but Guthrie said he intends the legislation to apply to any rental property in the county.
Guthrie said the municipalities of Havre de Grace, Aberdeen and Bel Air would not be affected, however, and noted they already have much stricter codes overseeing rental properties.
Anne Smoley, president of the Harford County Association of Realtors, said the bill is not "in the best interest" of her clients and customers with rental properties in Harford.
She said the director of administration is not defined as an "independent, trained individual."
"It would be another government employee and require additional funding," Smoley said.
She also noted the task of inspecting every rental property in the county would be "daunting" and require hiring of additional inspectors.
Dan Lambros, who is running for the Aberdeen/Churchville area county council seat and said he owns a "fair amount" of rental housing, said he could not tell from the bill that municipalities are specifically excluded and said the legislation has "a lot of flaws."
"It's not going to accomplish what you want. You have blight and you have crime and this livability code is just not going to do it," he said.
Lambros admitted some landlords are bad but "you can help us by being better landlords."
The issue of foreclosures and other blight has to do with "a few bad apples" who lack gainful employment, a problem that will not be fixed with "government overreach," he said.
Lambros added that "Mr. Guthrie is a good Christian man" but the problem has nothing to do with foreclosures and banks.
"This bill literally could end up in the seizure of property by government from legal citizens," Lambros warned. "It can do that if you let it go."
Mike Perrone, one of two Republicans who is running for the Edgewood-Joppatowne council seat, also said that if no additional inspectors need to be hired, it raises the question of what existing inspectors have been doing. Guthrie, a Democrat, is running for re-election to the seat he has held for 12 years.
Perrone said if the costs of the bill are borne by the taxpayers, meanwhile, everyone will be paying for the landlords' problems.
Bob Tibbs, who has served as resident liaison to the council, said he disagreed with Guthrie about where this bill would apply.
He said it clearly notes the county may require inspections in a "geographic area" to promote increased compliance.
"It is very hard for me to understand why this bill comes here now... and we had a livability code advisory board set up and now we want to amend it," Tibbs added.
Bane, meanwhile, said the bill would only affect absentee landlords, whose properties are typically clustered in low-income neighborhoods.
He said it is wrong to let dogs run at large, pile trash outside front doors, let criminals harass good people, let gangs terrorize neighborhoods and let people keep first responders from trying to do their jobs.