MILTON — With a tie-breaking vote cast by Mayor Ed Nelson, Milton borough council on Wednesday struck down a proposal which would have banned burning in the borough.
In addition to Nelson, council members voting against the revised ordinance that would have banned burning were: Jamie Walker, Richard Specht, Mark Shearer, Ron Keiser and Charles Swartz.
Council members who voted in favor of the burn ban were: Linda Meckley, Scott Farr, Jason Budman, Scott Jones and William Cyphers.
About 25 members of the public attended Wednesday’s council meeting, with several speaking in favor of allowing burning to continue on Wednesdays, as is currently permitted.
“This ban on burning seems like a last-resort move when all other avenues have been tried,” Jim Bolich told council. “If I can be convinced that all has been done to enforce the burning ordinance, so be it. But if not, it seems that the majority is being overruled by the minority.”
Shearer said he has yet to “have a good answer” on whether or not the current burning ordinance is being properly enforced.
Doug Diehl, the borough’s code enforcement officer, said residents are cited if he finds proof of or physically sees them burning plastic.
“I do not sneak in people’s back yards,” he said. “Often when I get called, it’s in flames. I’m not CSI.”
He said he cannot cite individuals if there is no proof that plastic was burned and he cannot conduct forensic studies on the contents of a burn barrel.
“I have to see the plastic, I have to do an investigation on it,” he said.
Diehl stressed that he works to educate residents on what can and cannot be legally burned.
Police Chief Curt Zettlemoyer said his department has received 26 official burning complaints since 2012.
On a first offense, Zettlemoyer said a written warning is typically issued and the offender is given a copy of the borough’s burning ordinance so they are aware what is and is not permitted.
Bolich volunteered to assist with the enforcement of burning.
“I would be willing to work with council and other responsible burners in formulating enforcement criteria and advertising said rules,” Bolich said. “We can police our own wards and reform any bad apples. If people know that big brother is watching, this will help deter those who do not wish to conform with the ordinance.”
In his remarks prior to the vote, Bolich suggested waiting until December to vote on the issue to give citizens the opportunity to help police the issue.
Following the meeting, Nelson said his vote in favor of allowing burning to continue was a difficult decision to make.
In October 2013, Nelson cast a tie-breaking vote calling for the burning issue to move to the general government committee to draft the revised ordinance banning Wednesday burning.
“I’ve been talking for 20 years about banning burning,” Nelson said following Wednesday’s meeting. “I sat there with an open mind, listening. I was thinking ‘let’s give these folks another shot at it.’”
Nelson stressed that he would be the first person to bring the issue before council again if Wednesday burning remains a problem.
“If this issue comes up again, it will pass and probably by the majority,” Nelson said.
Several citizens who spoke on Wednesday expressed concerns that their rights would be taken away by banning burning.
“We are losing our rights as taxpayers little by little,” Leonard Swope told council.
Linda Russell had similar remarks.
“Burning one day a week — I think is fine,” she said. “What bothers me a lot is people who burn garbage. Is there anything we can do about that and keep our rights?”
Meckley told those in attendance that she did extensive research while working on revising the ordinance. She even counted 25 illegally placed burn barrels in her neighborhood.
“We have a problem,” Meckley said of burning.
She also told the story of offering to take a piece of cardboard to the recycling center that her neighbor was attempting to burn.
The neighbor refused the offer, and Meckley handed the man a copy of Milton’s burning ordinance.
“He threw it in his burn barrel,” Meckley said of the ordinance copy. “That impacted my relationship with my neighbor to the point he put up a no trespassing sign and aimed it at my house.”
Shearer told those in attendance at the meeting that there were both good and bad points to the proposal to ban burning.
“We have everything in place so you wouldn’t have to burn your items,” he said, referring to the borough’s recycling program.
However, Shearer said he understood the concerns of older residents who only feel secure disposing of their personal documents by burning them, rather than shredding and recycling the paperwork.
He suggested that if the borough opts to hire a Main Street manager in the future, part of that individual’s responsibilities could include helping to enforce proper burning on Wednesdays.
Shearer also lashed out at his fellow council members for looking at the burning issue but turning a blind eye to run-down properties in the borough.
“We will allow property owners to shluck up their property,” Shearer said. “There are a lot of buildings downtown I could get sick over because they’re so poorly taken care of.”
Walker said he didn’t think the revised ordinance would include a complete ban on burning.
“There are way more pressing issues that we should be worried about,” he said. “Taking a right like this away, I don’t think it’s the right decision.”
With the smell of burning objects in the air, Jones said he immediately knows what day of the week it is when he walks outside on a Wednesday.
“I don’t want the police to be out enforcing burning issues,” he added. “They have more important things to do.”
After the vote, Farr called on residents to step up to the plate and help police the issue.
“Many of you talked about helping with enforcement,” he told those in attendance. “Let’s take a step forward.”
Nelson said following the meeting that residents need to report illegal burning that is taking place.
“If you see someone who is burning or doing something illegally in that fashion, or any other fashion that violates your life in the community, you have the responsibility to make that phone call to the borough office, to the police department or to code enforcement,” Nelson said. “If the police officers are free at the moment, they will answer that call. If not, they will answer that call as soon as they’re free.”
He said public safety would remain a “primary issue” and officers would not immediately respond to burning complaints if they were dealing with an issue relating in any way to the safety of the community.
Staff writer Kevin Mertz can be reached at 570-742-9671 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.