A proposed ordinance that would hold the hosts of unruly parties accountable for the actions of their house guests is heading to the Keene City Council for further consideration.
The council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee on Wednesday voted 4-0 to recommend that a so-called social host ordinance be submitted to the council after hearing a series of revisions to the first draft. The revisions, made by City Attorney Tom Mullins, were mostly related to definition specifications, but some were more significant.
The first draft contained four penalties for violating the ordinance, the first being a written warning. After input from Police Chief Steven Russo, Mullins said the written warning had been stricken from the draft, making the penalty for a first offense $300.
“It was determined that, for all intents and purposes, the written warning was not going to be something that they wanted to do,” Mullins said during the meeting, which was held via Zoom. “If they had to go out and deal with an unruly gathering, my understanding is, from talking to the chief, that they’re going to tell them to stop anyway, but if they don’t, there’s going to be a penalty associated with that.”
The ordinance would require the hosts of social gatherings to ensure that noise stays under control, that any alcohol consumption is in accordance with existing laws and that roads and driveways are not blocked. It also would authorize police to require that guests at a party vacate the premises if the officer determines a gathering violates the ordinance.
The $300 fine could also be applied to party guests who refuse to leave when asked by a police officer to do so. The second and third offenses would come with $500 and $1,000 fines, respectively, and could be issued only to hosts of unruly parties. The ordinance would also require that landlords be notified if a penalty is issued to one of their tenants.
Penalties are cumulative, meaning that if an officer issues a $300 fine, but later that night is called back to the same unruly gathering, a $500 fine could then be issued. However, the sequence of fines would reset one year after the first fine.
Other changes to the first draft, which was modeled after a similar law in San Marcos, Texas, include clarification that penalties would follow individuals rather than remain attached to the residence where a party is held, specifying that penalties would be issued to only one host in the case that there are multiple people on a lease or multiple owners of a single house.
While not officially part of the ordinance, the social host law would also come with a part-time administrative position to track offenses and to contact landlords whose properties were the site of unruly parties where a fine had been issued.
Some concern about this was raised by Councilors Mitch Greenwald and Philip Jones, who felt these tasks could be done by someone already on staff. City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon said the new position would have totally different responsibilities than anyone currently on the city payroll and noted that the cost would be split between the city and Keene State College. According to the draft job description, the position would be part of the Keene Police Department.
“I did run some numbers in terms of ... how much it might cost,” Dragon said. “Between the city and the college, if we end up with a $15,000 to $20,000 share each, to me, it’s worth it if you’re going to invest in a new ordinance and really want to see some success.”
Two members of the public weighed in on the ordinance’s second draft Wednesday night. Grove Street resident Tim Zinn, a member of the Concerned East Side Neighbors group that has been pushing for such an ordinance for years, made several suggestions, including adding language that would hold hosts who violate the ordinance responsible for reimbursing the city for the cost of the services required to break up a party.
Myrtle Street resident Pete Moran, also a member of the neighbors group, commended city officials for their work in moving such an ordinance forward. During past meetings, he had said the frequent parties in his neighborhood have been a problem and that he has been unable to reason with the hosts of such parties.
“I feel very good about all of this,” he said. “And I’m very optimistic.”