Dealing with public nuisances
I am writing this column the day after the most recent Selma Town Council meeting. I was there to witness the spectacle, as I usually do each month. I encourage people to attend these meetings. Last night, a lot of people showed up for one particular reason.
As many of you know from reading the paper, the Town of Selma is pursuing a public nuisance court action against two convenience stores on Pollock Street. During the public forum portion of the meeting, one of the business owners as well as many local citizens came to speak or listen to the topic. Most of these people would not have come to a council meeting otherwise.
I listened to people plea for the town to drop the nuisance charge. Some were passionate, most were merely emotional. From each, I heard opinion. That is the nature of the public forum, being a time to voice opinion. There were opinions that the action to close the businesses is unfair, a disservice to the community, racially motivated, and even a conspiracy theory that the action is motivated by property developers to be able to take over the property for their own purposes. Some citizens recounted the town's history and childhood memories of a community store. Some related their desire to have a store within walking distance.
Let me deal with a few different topics here. First is the notion that the action has anything to do with race. It is a fact that one of the business owners is Black (I refuse to use the PC term “African-American” or any other hyphenated term). It is a fact that the majority of the residents near the stores are also Black. Ergo, most of the clientèle of these stores are Black. That, however, is not the motivation for the town's concern. The motivation is simply that the customers of these stores are rowdy, drug users, drug dealers, and violent. It is a matter of bad behavior and criminal activity, not skin color.
What I did not hear from the majority of the speakers at the citizen's forum was well reasoned, logical argument. I find two points that were lacking. 1. Are the businesses indeed a nuisance to the general public? 2. Is it the role and responsibility of government to interfere with private, legal businesses? Those are the emotion free, logical topics that need to be addressed. Once those are addressed, then we can answer 3. Should the business owners be responsible for nuisance abatement? 4. If the business owners do not eliminate the continuing nuisance status, should they be shut down in order to eliminate said nuisances?
There were several citizens who voiced the opinion that the entire town is to blame for the criminal activity that happens around the stores. Sorry, but those arguments just do not have validity. To blame the entire population of a town or community for the actions of a few is absurd. The general population of the town did not corrupt or convince a few to exhibit bad behavior. The whole “it takes a village to raise a child” mentality is nothing more than an excuse for bad parenting and personal responsibility lapses.
Where do I personally come down on the topic? I believe that the business owners should be held to the expectation that they will take responsibility for what happens on their property. However, I am also of the opinion that personal property and freedom to operate a business should not be flippantly abridged. We as a town need to re-evaluate whether the ability to easily collar some criminals on a semi-regular basis at a known public location actually constitutes a nuisance. I would rather that the criminals pay for their behavior, not the business owner upon whose property the criminals act. I also understand that as a business owner, one can not abrogate the responsibility of ensuring that such activities do not occur, especially on a regular, continued basis on their property. There has to be a balance.
When it comes to public condemnation of private property, I understand the idea behind eradicating the problematic property. I also highly respect private property rights and tend to lean towards protection of said rights.