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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Here comes the judge!

Charlestown’s new municipal court has won approval from the General Assembly with the final passage of H5020A, sponsored by Rep. Donna Walsh and co-sponsored by Rep. Larry Valencia. The Senate version was sponsored by Sen. Dennis Algiere. They introduced this legislation at the request of the Charlestown Town Council.

With this necessary approval, Charlestown can now proceed to cash in on a potential gold mine in fines for traffic and housing violations.

We have already picked our Municipal Judge – Margaret Lenihan Steele of Westerly. Now it’s up to Police Chief Jack Shippee and Building Official Joseph Warner to get the troops geared to go out there and write those tickets.

I have some suggestions.

The law now states that Charlestown is entitled to set up a municipal court “and confer upon that court original jurisdiction…to hear and determine causes involving the violation of any ordinance” with special emphasis on housing codes and traffic laws.

We have a LOT of ordinances and they reach pretty deep and wide.

When our town police busts somebody for speeding, red-light or stop sign running, making illegal turns or parking where they’re not supposed to, Charlestown will now be able to keep a large piece of the ticket. We could boost our reputation with organizations like the National Speed Trap Exchange, which hasn’t had a speed trap report from Charlestown since 2006.

My suggestion is for stepped up traffic enforcement on litterers, especially summer visitors. I’m tired of picking up bags full of fast-food wrappers, Dunkin Donuts Styrofoam cups, empty Marlboro packs, cans and bottles of Bud and nips of Smirnoff (that’s about 90% of the roadside trash) from my Route One frontage..

Littering first offenders can be fined not less than $85 and up to $500. On the second offense, the fine jumps to a minimum of $300 and up to $500. By law, our municipal court can’t levy a fine of more than $500.

An alternative sentence is to make the offenders go out and pickup roadside trash for up to 25 hours. I would love to see a chain gang of New Yorkers in orange jumpsuits policing Route One.

I’m torn between wanting the town to get all that potential revenue or assembling the chain gangs. But either way, with the new municipal court in place, we have that option.

But the real Mother Lode for untapped revenue is under the jurisdiction of our town building guy Joseph Warner. The Charlestown Building Official has the enforcement authority not only over all of our town’s building & zoning codes, but also:
-         Trees
-         Porta Johns
-         Street numbers
-         Outdoor furnaces
-         Signs
-         Wind-to-Energy contraband

And when the lighting ordinance is enacted, protecting our dark skies will also be the duty of the Building Official.

We might even be able to replace our current property tax system with a new system of levies and fines for violating town ordinances, especially if we set the fines for each offense at the maximum $500. Almost everyone in town must be guilty of something.

For example, you must have the proper type of street numbering or else you’re subject to a fine. It has to be in the right place and be properly visible. Any signs you hang must conform to our very detailed ordinances. For example, you can have one (only) non-commercial sign with your name and address on it, as long as it is less than four feet square.

I have kvetched in earlier articles that Charlestown seems to have a lot of unenforceable ordinances. Well, now we a genuine financial incentive to enforce our ordinances.

Bag the violators and hand them a summons to appear before Judge Steele. And she’ll collect all right because under the new law, she can sentence scofflaws to up to 30 days in jail. We may find the need to actually build a jail, in the traditional village style of course, but we may be able to get by with stocks.

Author: Will Collette