By Gary Nelson
Senior staff writer
The future of the Health and Safety Standards Board remains uncertain after four of five members who volunteered their service on the committee resigned during Tuesday evening's meeting.
The members resigned after several county commissioners attended the meeting and at least three of them questioned committee members regarding operations, cases they were discussing and the procedures of the committee.
John Kinnunen, who served as chairman of the Health and Safety Standards Board said, "It was obvious that the underlying cause of the questioning was to eliminate the committee and save the county the $9,500 a year (budgeted) for the board. They feel they can pass the problems on to the Environmental Committee. It's obvious they want to keep the county in the past and not progress into the future and to let people do whatever they want on their property and feel there is no need for the committee ... We just decided that they were so adamant in their feelings that there was no reason for us to continue due to the lack of support from those commissioners. It was obvious they would continue criticizing whatever we do as a board in the future, so we resigned."
Other members of the committee included William Ness, Nancy Hyder, 2nd District commissioner and Jack Jamieson and Fred Robison.
Last month county commissioners Johnny Presley and Dave Hassler, 3rd District commissioners, as well as Joe Koester, 5th District, and Larry Allen, 6th District, attended the HSSB meeting. On Tuesday evening Presley, Hassler, Koester and Allen attended the meeting as well as commissioners Jan McNeil, 5th District, and Mike Harvel, 7th District.
The HSSB is authorized to deal only with vacant and dilapidated properties posing a health and/or safety hazard to the community.
In order to come under the jurisdiction of the HSSB board, a home must be dilapidated, abandoned and a complaint must be filed and signed by three surrounding property owners within 150 yards of the home.
The Cumberland County Commission established the HSSB in December 2005 to help deal with and eliminate a burned out, dilapidated home on Lantana Rd.
Since then, several properties have been addressed and cleaned up or cleared out.
The board is not supposed to identify properties that meet the health and safety criteria, but to respond to complaints that are filed by citizens living near the vacant and dilapidated properties.
At Tuesday's meeting, Hassler, Presley and Harvel began to question members of the committee about a property in Mayland which the committee was discussing. A heated debate erupted between county commissioners, bringing the business of the meeting to a halt.
"We were working within the guidelines that were provided for us and a minority of the county commission came in and took over the meeting. We all felt we didn't have a chance. We had limited power, but we were helping the county. I feel like we were let down by the county and the county mayor," said former HSSB board member Jack Jamieson.
William Hess, former HSSB member echoed Jamieson's thoughts.
"It became evident after 30 to 40 minutes into the meeting that we were not going to accomplish anything. The commissioners expressed their goal was to eliminate the HSSB and so we disbanded," Hess said.
Former HSSB board member Fred Robison said, "We were told they didn't need us. We felt we didn't have a choice but to resign because they wouldn't support us. Commissioner Hassler flat out said he didn't want this board and would do what it takes to get rid of it and the others agreed. So we resigned."
Dave Hassler, 3rd District commissioner said, "I just feel like it's a committee that's not needed. The Environmental Committee can perform the same function, so I don't see why there is a need to have it."
When asked if he would appoint new members to the board, Cumberland County Mayor Kenneth Carey said, "I'm going to speak to the county commission about it and see what they want to do. We just made some appointments to this board and I hadn't heard any complaints. I also sent out a request to CTAS (County Technical Assistance Service) asking them for some input to see how many other counties have committees like this across the state."
Jamieson said he didn't feel the committee had the support of Mayor Carey, who also attended the meeting.
"I think the committee is good to an extent, but most of the people I hear from in the county don't want zoning and there has been some controversy among the commissioners over what the board can regulate. Some feel like it may lead to zoning," Carey said.
Harvel, 7th District commissioner said, "The meeting got out of hand. I have mixed feelings on it. I can see how the board is needed in one way, but I have a concern about the county getting into a lawsuit over telling people what to do with their property. The county attorney (Randal Boston) said a mobile home or trailer isn't a permanent residence and won't come under this board unless it is deeded and there's no title. I don't know if some of these places are like that and we've got to check on that. But now I don't think it's right for someone to build next to a place that's piled up with junk and then come and complain about it. They knew what was there. Why build next to it?"
The Mayland property being discussed was a mobile home and Harvel said that's why he questioned it coming under the committee.
County attorney Randal Boston has told the HSSB board in the past the he didn't feel the board or county should be dealing with properties that are located in subdivisions that have a property owners association because those associations have the authority to regulate their own properties in their subdivisions.
The county does have an agreement with the Lake Tansi POA that lets the county deal with property owners in their subdivision, but the Tansi POA covers the cost of any demolition, removal or cleaning of a property. Several have been cleared in the past.
Although there is no agreement with Fairfield Glade, some properties and property owners have been addressed in the past few years resulting in those properties being cleaned.
Harvel also felt he thought the HSSB committee should consist only of county commissioners rather than citizens.
"I'd be willing to be on the committee and I think we ought to have nine commissioners on it and one represent each district like the other committees. Then, we aren't having to pay an attorney to come to every meeting and pay a secretary for time at every meeting," Harvel said.
Jan McNeil, 5th District commissioner who attended the meeting, said, "I feel the (commissioners') behavior may have been a violation of ethics. There was a line crossed by these commissioners who purposely went to that meeting in an effort to disrupt the business of the committee and to get them to disband. I think it's sad this happened and I feel badly for these people on this committee that have put all this time into serving and volunteer their time only to be treated this way. It wasn't right for them."
Earlier in the year the HSSB was voted to be de-funded by the county's budget committee after 3rd District Commissioner Johnny Presley made a motion. The committee had gone a few months without meeting because some of the previous member's terms had expired and a quorum could not be assembled.
After a few months of not meeting, Mayor Carey reported to the Budget Committee in April this year that he was having trouble getting anyone to volunteer to serve on the HSSB. He said he thought the Environmental Committee could handle the duties of the HSSB.
Joe Koester, 5th District commissioner, said in a matter of a few days he had several people willing to volunteer for the HSSB committee and he gave those names to Carey.
In May, during the county commission meeting, Resolution 05-2011-3 was approved by a 10-5 vote in favor of appointing new members William Ness, Nancy Hyder, 2nd District commissioner and Jack Jamieson as well as reappointing members John Kinnunen and Fred Robison.
Later, the Budget Committee voted to fund the HSBB at its rate of $9,500 for the 2011-'12 fiscal year. It was also approved by the full county commission when included in the county's 2011-'12 fiscal year budget.
About Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner Koester said, "I was extremely dismayed and disappointed at the actions of a few fellow county commissioners at the health and safety standards meeting Tuesday night. On several occasions commissioners Presley, Hassler and Harvel have made their feelings known to me and others about the mission, function and continued existence of the HSSB board."
"Last month's health and safety standards board meeting was also somewhat disrupted by comments from Hassler and Presley and their obvious disdain and dissatisfaction with a committee created and funded by the County Commission nearly 6 years ago."
"In recent months they attended the board's meetings in what I had hoped was an attempt to learn and appreciate what the board was doing for the citizens of Cumberland County. Unfortunately, their true motives were manifested at the Tuesday meeting and culminated in Commissioner Hassler's statement that he would do all he could to disband the board."
"What particularly bothered me during this last board meeting was Mayor Carey laughing and grinning as the heated discussions ensued. I would have thought that a mayor supporting one of the boards he was charged with staffing would have some overt show of support, yet it appeared to be lacking ... "
Commissioner Hyder said she was shocked about what happened during Tuesday's meeting.
"I'm ashamed and was embarrassed how those people were treated that way. This is one committee that citizens can serve on and then they are treated with no respect or dignity? This was only my second meeting after being appointed. There was no need for what occurred at that meeting," Hyder said.
Hyder did not resign from the committee.
Mayor Carey said he will bring the matter up before the county commission and will determine what steps to take based on its recommendation. As of now, the five-member Health and Safety Standards Board is only seated by one member, county commissioner Hyder.