It wasn’t on the agenda when the City of Westminster’s mayor and Common Council gathered for the first of their twice-monthly meetings on Monday, July 9. But criminal activity in one area of the city became a key talking point as the meeting progressed.
It was otherwise business-as-usual Monday night. Council members approved minutes from previous sessions, updated each other on various city activities and initiatives — like Westminster’s first Pride Festival, which multiple council members lauded — and heard public comment.
Council voted to advance Ordinance 895, which will establish a Medical Cannabis Overlay District in the city’s B Business Zone, to second reading. At the next council meeting lawmakers will vote finally on whether to approve the ordinance.
Mayor Joe Dominick read a proclamation that established July as Parks and Recreation Month.
But then Darcel Harris, a Westminster resident and community activist, spoke of increasing drug activity in her neighborhood on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“The quality of life has gone down the drain on Pennsylvania Avenue,” she said. “I live across the street from the most inconsiderate [people],” whom she suspects of using and selling drugs.
Harris, an educator who “knows most” of those struggling with substance abuse in her area “because she helps them,” said there are transactions occurring all night at a nearby front porch and that people are vomiting in the middle of the street, noting “I’m really concerned.”
Some parents are no longer comfortable allowing their children to play outside, Harris told the council. “It’s summertime and people can’t go out.”
“I don’t understand how this is happening on the street that you have the parades on,” she said. “I mean, this is an historical street.”
The mayor and council praised Harris for bringing her observations to their attention.
“Sometimes we need a reminders of what’s going on in around us,” Councilman Tony Chiavacci said at the meeting. “We don’t always see it all.”
“The more you come and voice your concern is important,” Councilman Benjamin Yingling added. “I agree with you; my wife and I see it all the time.”
Harris said she didn’t have a solution to propose, but thinks “arresting our way out of this” is unlikely, and that “rehab works.”
Chiavacci told the Times after the council meeting that this has been cycling in and out of the city for years — as long as he could remember.
“It’s not just Pennsylvania Avenue; it’s different areas and it moves around,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t even legislate” for certain human behavior.
Regardless, Chiavacci thinks part of the solution will derive from community unity and action. He referred to a time years ago when there was more robust community movement.
“I think things improved because of that,” he said.
“At the end of the day, people who are bad actors don’t like a cohesive, unified neighborhood, because they look out for each other, they pay attention to what’s going on, they call the police,” Chiavacci said. “That’s all bad for the bad guys.”
But the council will aide community action, he said. The council can work through its police and code enforcement departments.
“It’s tough to arrest yourself out of these type of problems,” Chiavacci said. “But a more consistent police presence … is having a patrol there more frequently, or even a foot patrol more frequently, the right thing?”
Mayor Dominick told the Times that it’s not all of Pennsylvania Avenue, as McDaniel College has bought properties and helped revive some areas. But he suggested that some of the activity Harris’ described could have to do with property owners who live far from Westminster and “don’t have as much of an incentive to care what’s happening on their property.”
Dominick said the city is limited in what it can do about rental licenses, even if there’s a really bad issue that’s reported by a tenant. He’s looking into solutions that stem from strengthening rental license oversight.
“A lot of people think of [Westminster] as a city in the middle of a rural area, suburban area,” Dominick said. “But we have some urban issues here, as a city does.” One of the ways cities have successfully addressed them, he said, is rental licensing agreements that allow for some type of intervention.
Business could also play an important role, Dominick said. “There are businesses that are moving in and redeveloping some of those areas right now, that really, that’s what fixes it.”
“We can do things to get rid of some of the symptoms,” he said. “But good redevelopment of buildings and businesses going in … businesses that are open all day.”
“[Fewer] nuisances happen when people are watching.”