BUCKHANNON - Automatic license plate readers are here to stay, but it's back to square one for the college zoning district around West Virginia Wesleyan College.
On Thursday, Council voted 4-3 to rescind an ordinance approved at the last meeting establishing a college district around West Virginia Wesleyan College. Mayor Kenny Davidson, along with Recorder Richard Edwards and Councilman Tom O'Neill, voted to keep the college zone. But they were outvoted by council members David Thomas, Ron Pugh, Mary Albaugh and Pam Cuppari.
Regarding the license plate readers, Davidson, O'Neill, Cuppari and Edwards voted to continue using the device. Edwards, Albaugh and Pugh wanted to discontinue using the device but were outvoted.
At the Aug. 28 meeting, City Council approved the college district by a vote of 3-2, with Albaugh and Cuppari absent. During Thursday's meeting, Thomas made a motion, seconded by Pugh, to rescind that vote.
Two individuals attended Thursday's meeting to express concerns about the ordinance. Mike McCauley lives on College Avenue. Though his property is not located within the college district, he said the zone would affect him nonetheless. The city should have contacted more than just the individuals living inside the college zone, he said.
"There are about 50 people who live along the edge of these lines, and not one of us was contacted about this. This affects us just as much as it affects anybody inside," he said.
Tim Reese also lives just outside the college district. Both Reese and McCauley said the zoning could affect property values, as well as numerous other aspects of quality of life in the neighborhood.
"They could put a Popeye's chicken across the street. I was a fraternity member when I went to Wesleyan, but I didn't live in the house because it was disgusting. I always felt bad for the people who lived next to the houses because I know exactly what goes on, all the noise. It's outrageous. Now they can just pop a frat house in," Reese said.
Several council members shared some of the same concerns.
Thomas expressed concern over the process the city used to create the ordinance. He and Pugh said more could have been done to notify the people
Thomas added that city attorney David McCauley, who was one of the individuals responsible for drafting the ordinance, is also the college's general counsel, which could create an appearance of impropriety.
"I think David had his heart in the right place and wanted to do what was right for the city and the college. But you do have a question of appearance," he said.
Additionally, Albaugh said the city should have notified those who were affected when the ordinance was still being reviewed by the Planning Commission, rather than waiting until the ordinance was brought to City Council for first reading.
The issue was not time sensitive and there was no reason the city couldn't spare the time to make sure the ordinance was created through a process that was more inclusive, Thomas said.
"Eventually, when we're all not here, all these pieces of property will be owned by the college. I hope it's done in the right way," he said.
Davidson did not agree with the motion to rescind the ordinance. He believed there would have been a way to address concerns through amending the ordinance.
"We'll go back to square one. I think it's a mistake. I will predict that not much will change and, when we do get this back to pass it, it will look like it does today," he said.
Also during Thursday's meeting:
- Regarding the automated license plate readers, much debate has occurred regarding how information is gathered and stored by the devices. Davidson said the device only captures a license plate number and global positioning coordinates.
But Pugh and Albaugh argued the devices intrude on people's privacy. They expressed concern over the high potential for data mining.
"I do think it's an invasion of our privacy. I think when we change things with our government we cannot change it from Washington down. Change has to be made from the ground up," Pugh said.
In addition to echoing Pugh's concerns over privacy, Albaugh had two other basic reasons for wanting to discontinue use of the device. She said it could open up the city to liability in the event of an illegal traffic stop. In addition, she does not believe her constituents are in favor of license plate readers.
"I have talked until I'm blue in the face with residents in this community. That's my job as council person. I don't think that they believe police officers should have this unit. They're all for them having cameras that we've talked about at previous meetings as a safety issue," Albaugh said. "This is not a safety issue, I don't believe. We don't have any idea where this data is going to go. How long to they keep it? How long do they maintain it? Who are they going to give it to? You can't tell me it's not an invasion of privacy."
Proponents of the device say it's a valuable tool for the police department. It can help locate vehicles for which alerts have been issued, which could help thwart crimes from kidnapping to car theft. However, Pugh noted that the police department has had no such success with the devices.
"That doesn't tell me that it's helping Buckhannon at all," he said.
Thomas asked David McCauley if the plate readers are being used in other states.
"There is one state that has completely banned the use of ALPRs - the state of New Hampshire. Virginia, Michigan and couple of other states have set limitations like how long the data can be stored. But in the overwhelming majority of the states there is complete endorsement in the use of ALPRs. There has yet to be a court in the United States of America that has ruled that the use of ALPR technology is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. That has not occurred," David McCauley said.
Thomas said he was in favor of keeping the device for now but continuously monitoring the program. He said it should be a topic for later discussion to determine if the readers truly are a benefit.
"If we vote it down now, we're going to lose it. It's a tool that can help our law enforcement community. I'd like to maintain it currently but at some point in time take a look at it again," he said.