Many Keene residents, particularly those living near the Keene State College campus, have long urged City Council action to curb unruly behavior in their neighborhoods. They should be pleased with the proposed ordinance now headed to the council for consideration at its Nov. 5 meeting.
The idea for the ordinance was brought forth in June by a group of residents who live east of the college. Unlike past, unsuccessful city initiatives to hold landlords responsible for excessive partying, noise and offensive off-campus behavior by college students and others, the proposed ordinance sent to the council on Wednesday by the Planning, Licenses and Development Committee would target those who host or attend gatherings of five or more that violate the ordinance, with fines beginning at $300 and escalating to $1,000 for subsequent offenses.
In its evolution to the version now heading to the council for its second reading, the ordinance changed in certain respects from the neighborhood group’s June concept proposal and from the initial draft discussed by the committee in September.
To add greater enforcement effectiveness, the ordinance’s structure of escalating fines will now apply to hosts of unruly gatherings on the first and each subsequent offense, and not just following an initial written notice from the police. Also, the proposed ordinance is now mostly silent on landlord responsibility. Responsive to concerns raised by landlords about past council initiatives to rein in disruptive behavior, the ordinance provides that owners will receive police notification when a gathering violating the ordinance has occurred on their property but does not include any landlord penalties, which the June concept proposal had suggested.
The ordinance marks an important step forward for the city in addressing neighborhood concerns about disruptive conduct. In addition to establishing much clearer standards for controlling and disciplining unruly behavior, it also has the important near-term benefit of aiding the effort to limit social gatherings that might risk spreading the novel coronavirus.
Another point in the ordinance’s favor is that it has been developed with Keene State’s involvement and has received the strong endorsement from President Melinda Treadwell. When the concept was first floated earlier this year, she told the council she was all for it, a stance she has since reaffirmed. In particular, she has observed that a social-host ordinance would tie in with the school’s disciplinary code and provide the college additional means to control the off-campus behavior of its students.
Though not part of the ordinance, a companion component is a related proposal the city has been discussing with Keene State to create a part-time administrative position within the Keene Police Department that would track violations, follow up with landlords whose tenants have been cited and work with the city, the college, property owners and residents. The plan is for the city and the college to split the cost, which City Manager Elizabeth Dragon estimates at $15,000 to $20,000 for each, annually. That raised some eyebrows when it was discussed at the committee’s previous meeting, with some members suggesting the position’s responsibilities could be handled without the added expense by an existing city-college liaison position.
Dragon feels strongly the additional staffing is needed for the ordinance to achieve its goal of reducing unruly behavior. And, she has stated, if the ordinance succeeds, it has the potential to reduce the city’s policing costs over time. She has since reported finding temporary funds in the budget for the city’s $7,500 share of the position’s cost for the remaining half of the fiscal year, and the city and college are ironing out an amendment to their shared services agreement to provide for the college’s share.
We agree that the ordinance should be given every chance to succeed and urge the council to press ahead in adopting the ordinance and endorsing the new part-time position. The ordinance may turn out to need strengthening down the road — for instance, it might need more teeth if additional landlord cooperation proves necessary — but the only way to know is to put the social-host program in place. Its time has come.