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Contractor ordinance dead

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

The Marion City Council voted Tuesday night to kill an ordinance that would have required contractors working in the city to pass a knowledge test in order to become a licensed contractor with the city.

Council member Jim Brunner said many of his constituents opposed the ordinance and made their feelings known to him.

“I have probably been contacted by more people on this issue than anything I've ever been contacted about … and I think I've served well over 30 years as a school board member and a City Council member. And the contacts I received were 95 percent negative,” Brunner said.

The ordinance, which was brought to the council by city Building Comissioner Jerry Foustnight, would have required contractors applying for a license to work in the city to pass a test of local building code. Foustnight argued the ordinance would help protect homeowners from potentially dangerous code violations in construction, electrical work or other kinds of building projects.

Phil Bowers of JG Bowers, who had also been present to help answer contractor-related questions at a January council meeting, spoke in support of the bill, saying it was an issue of safety for the city.

“Anybody who can do a good job should be able to follow the codes and take care of their customers. … I think it's a forward thinking measure for the city to ensure good quality building,” Bowers said during the public hearing portion of the meeting.

But Bowers largely stood alone as most of the comments from the public were negative. 

“I really don't think that a test is going to tell you that a person has the ability to do the work,” said Charles Moon, a Marion resident who is running for City Council.

Moon asked if the city's inspectors were going to have to pass the test and pay for it, too. Foustnight had said the test would cost applicants between $150 and $175 to take.

Marion resident Lois Jones said some skilled tradespeople can't read or write, but can still do a good job.

That's the reason Council member Henry Smith said he voted no Tuesday.

“I've had some people working for me, they can't read a blueprint, but they're good at their job, and that makes a difference in our society,” Smith said.

Smith had raised concerns during earlier meetings that the test would weed out the less educated and less established contractors in the city. Brunner said his constituents made similar arguments.

“Some of the best builders, some of the best plumbers, some of the best electrical people that we may have in the state of Indiana may not be able to pass that test, and I sure as heck ain't going to keep them from earning their keep and doing the work they probably were meant by God to do,” Brunner said.

Don Everett, an electrical contractor, had concerns about the requirements driving out local contractors and encouraging more outside contracts for Indianapolis and Fort Wayne firms.

Council members Steve Henderson, Don Batchelor, Lynn Johnson and Brad Luzadder also voted against the ordinance. Council members Deb Cain, Dave Homer and Alan Miller cast the three votes in favor.

Before the council's vote, a proposed change to the ordinance which would have created a new oversight committee for the contractor licensing and registration was withdrawn mid-meeting by its author.

Luzadder had suggested creating a committee to review violations and make decisions on the suspension or revocation of contractors' licenses. The committee would have been made up of three members, two council appointees – one Democrat and one Republican – and one city administration appointee.

But City Attorney Tom Hunt raised concerns about the constitutionality of giving enforcement powers to a mostly city council-appointed board.

“This is an issue that involves separation of powers, and that's not just some cute little phrase we learned about in junior high school, it's important, it's how this government works, and it means something. And if it's to mean something we have to honor it,” Hunt said.

The attorney said any decision of such a board could potentially be challenged in court.

After hearing these concerns Luzadder asked to withdraw his amendment from consideration.

“I have no problem with pulling that if we're that set against that, I have no problem. Mr. President, I would ask that as the author of it that I would pull it,” Luzadder said.

Foustnight, who has been pushing the ordinance for months now, expressed his disappointment after the meeting.

“We felt like we had done our homework, we felt like we had brought before the council a proposed ordinance that would help the city of Marion, through this ordinance that would have required more accountability, and apparently council members thought it was something that wasn't needed for the city,” Foustnight said.

Although recent council meetings required lengthy question and answer sessions, including a line-by-line explanation of the ordinance at a special session of the council last month, Foustnight said he was confident the council understood what they were voting on Tuesday night.

He said he would continue to try to educate the public and the council on the issues his department deals with during building inspections.

In other business, some proposed changes to the salary ordinances for police and fire administration were pushed off the council's agenda.

Council President Alan Miller said the council's executive session, scheduled for Thursday, was related to the proposed changes. The executive session's stated purpose is to review the job performance of individual employees, according to the public notice for the meeting.

The proposed changes have to do with non-union police and fire leadership receiving union benefits not authorized by the salary ordinance. The city was written up for the issue in its latest audits by the State Board of Accounts.

Miller also announced the council is seeking applicants for a seat on the Board of Zoning Appeals. Interested Marion residents can pick up an application at the clerk's office in the Marion Municipal Building. Applications are due next Wednesday, Feb. 13.

The council held a moment of silence for community member Ken Hill, who died recently.

“What Ken Hill did for this community for a half century was absolutely incredible. Alan (Miller) and I both being in the media know what it would be like to try to run a newspaper all by yourself and he did that for virtually a half century,” Brunner said.