A limited cleanup
The Huntsville Times
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

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New law points up the need to reform the constitution

While the rest of the country may judge Alabama as anachronistic because of the recent legislative punch-out, it would probably be more surprised to learn that some counties are just getting around to imposing and enforcing laws that regulate the accumulation of junk on private property.

The idea that people have to meet certain minimum standards for their property has long been accepted elsewhere. The idea that local government can set reasonable regulations has long been established. Folks everywhere realize that being a good citizen involves agreeing to and meeting community rules. It's neighborly, and it's safer that way.

But in Alabama, where the Legislature rules all and where some people think that they have no civic obligation to keep their property from being unsightly, dangerous and unhealthy, it's been difficult to get minimal property laws on the books.

Recently, the Legislature - and then county voters in a referendum - allowed the Madison County Commission to adopt the most basic of regulations. Monday, the commission adopted an ordinance, which goes into effect July 1.

And, typically, the enabling legislation falls short of what the county really needs to get the job done.

The new ordinance does prohibit people from strewing their property with junk appliances and inoperable vehicles, and doesn't let landowners throw garbage, rubbish, hazardous waste and other trash hither and yon on their property.

People who live next door to such ugly and potentially unhealthy debris will be happy about that - if the county can enforce the new law effectively.

While the ordinance does allow the county to cite and to sue if minimal conditions aren't met, it doesn't allow offenders to be arrested for noncompliance or for law enforcement officers to write citations. The former will slow the process of inspection, warnings and eventual court action. The latter will put more burdens on an insufficient number of county workers available to move this program forward with alacrity.

Of course, some people will view all of this as government intrusion upon a sacred right. It's not. It's an acknowledgment that we live in a civilized society in which we don't harm the property of others by lowering property values and allowing unsanitary conditions. Rats, awful odors and ugliness don't stop at property lines.

The ordinance, then, is a bare-bones first step toward bringing order from chaos. It also underscores the necessity for local governments to address these situations without having to bow and scrape to Montgomery for the right to adopt quality-of-life laws that the newly suburban residents demand and require.

That, of course, can only come with constitutional reform that gives local leaders, accountable to local voters, more authority in local matters.

The outmoded constitution, in other words, needs a cleanup as much as some areas of this county.

If citizens will strongly encourage their legislators to put more power in local hands, that will be an even greater step forward than the lukewarm junk ordinance that was all the commission had the power to adopt Tuesday.

By David Prather, for the editorial board: E-mail: david.prather@htimes.com.

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