Home rule desperately needed

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 6, 2003

For a year and a half, the Shelby County Commission has had &uot;limited home rule&uot; &045; at least on paper, that is.

According to County Commissioner Lindsey Allison, the hands of the county’s ruling board are still tied when it comes to creating rules and regulations with real &uot;teeth&uot; in them.

Much has been discussed since the beginning of Gov. Bob Riley’s term about changes that are needed to Alabama’s 1901 Constitution, a document that has been termed both &uot;outdated&uot; and &uot;antiquated.&uot;

In recent months, however, the governor’s new Constitution Reform committee, led by University of Alabama professor Bailey Thomson and former Secretary of State Jim Bennett, has touted the need for counties to have more ruling power at home among other reforms.

Allison couldn’t agree more.

&uot;County governments are not given the proper tools they need to govern,&uot; she said. &uot;We’re ill-equipped to address problems in our communities.&uot;

For example, she said, in order for a county government to address illegal dumping, to mandate garbage pickup or to address a noise problem, &uot;We have to go through the Legislature.

&uot;Essentially, it adds another layer of government.&uot;

Shelby County began its march toward home rule with zoning rules following an increase in development in 1970s and 1980s.

&uot;Al Knight was Shelby County’s representative, and he recognized the need to zone areas as the developments came in,&uot; she said.

Since then, residents are allowed to vote to become a zoned area of unincorporated Shelby County. And as they do, they fall under the ruling of the county’s Planning Commission.

&uot;It’s still really cumbersome, but at least it’s something,&uot; Allison said.

Shelby County residents then voted in November 2001 to give the commission limited home rule, which would allow them to make certain decisions for citizens without running them past the Alabama State Legislature, a body which has proven itself to be increasingly bogged down.

&uot;But it still has problems,&uot; Allison said. &uot;It gives us some local authority; but it only gives us the ability to create civil consequences.

&uot;Until we can build legislation ourselves with criminal penalties, there is no real teeth in anything we do,&uot; she said, referring to one aspect in particular.

Since November 2001, the County Commission has worked to create a noise ordinance for the county.

&uot;We did create one, but it only had civil consequences associated with it. There were no criminal penalties,&uot; she said.

&uot;It’s difficult to expect our deputies to try and enforce something like a noise ordinance that has no teeth in it &045; no real, compelling reason to follow it.&uot;

The commissioners have decided to send their noise ordinance to the Legislature so it will become a law &uot;with teeth in it.&uot;

&uot;So here again, our hands are still tied,&uot; she said, &uot;and we’re going to the state Legislature.&uot;

Allison said she has been listening to the changes being discussed by the Constitution Reform Committee but does not seem encouraged.

&uot;In my experience, when it comes to home rule of counties, I believe there will be a problem with the senators and representatives from the rural areas of the state. I think they either believe their county commissioners are not smart enough to govern themselves, or they just don’t want to give up that power,&uot; she said.

For the state of Alabama to move forward, however, something has to change.

&uot;Cities are given the tools they need to govern. Counties are not. Although they are given as much, if not more, of the responsibility, they are not given the power,&uot; Allison said.

&uot;All of us want to govern less; but, let’s face it, if you have a mobile home fabrication plant moving in next to a $250,000 home, that needs a remedy and that remedy must come from the county.&uot;