Councilors attempt damage control as pushback over camping ban grows
As Seidler and Sklavounakis attempt to redefine what their urban camping ban means in the face of potential lawsuits, city residents left the meeting feeling "gaslit" and "slimy."
As the city council of Wheeling held its first meeting since receiving a letter from the ACLU of WV and two-dozen local organizations requesting a suspension of their controversial urban camping ban, councilors tried to backtrack definitions contained in the ban.
Councilor Ben Seidler, Ward 2, used his remarks to claim there is a process in place for service providers to request an exemption to the urban camping ban.
There is no such process defined in the ordinance as passed.
Seidler continued, saying the ban does not specify that only a “managed camp” would be permitted. This contrasts with three months of council meetings where the only type of permitted camp discussed by city leaders was a managed camp.
Councilor Jerry Sklavounakis, Ward 4, echoed Seidler’s comments, asking if city manager Robert Herron has received any formal request for specific campsites to be exempted from the ordinance. Herron confirmed that no formal request has been made.
Sklavounakis spoke of concerns raised that the city would send bulldozers to camps, saying it was something no one wants to do.
The city did send two bulldozers, two dump trucks, two Wheeling Police Department law enforcement officers, and a dozen city employees, in an attempt to demolish a camp on January 3, 2024. One of the bulldozers came within eight feet of a tent where a man was sleeping inside.
Councilor Rosemary Ketchum, Ward 3, pushed back against Seidler’s claims, saying the ban as adopted did not read as if there was a process to request an exemption.
She asked the city manager how organizations can request an exemption. Herron said they should reach out to his office directly, but that not all exemptions would be granted.
This meeting is the first time any member of council or city administration has stated that organizations have the ability to request exemptions to the ban.
The ban passed council on November 7. Since then, the council has met five separate times.
Mayor Glenn Elliott spoke about the ban, noting that he was in the minority opinion on the issue after being one of two members of council to vote against it. Ketchum was the second no-vote.
Elliott says he is mindful of the situation, and how critical the issue is in the community.
“We’re not where we need to be yet,” Elliott said, adding that the city needs support from the state and federal government to tackle the issue of homelessness.
No state official has commented on the situation in Wheeling.
City officials went further in the meeting claiming only 15 individuals were residing in area camps. Service providers dispute that estimate, saying it severely undercounts individuals in need.
Previous estimates in the summer saw over two-hundred homeless individuals in the area. The Life Hub has recorded more than 120 unique individuals seeking services at their Winter Freeze shelter since December 15.
Seidler also disputed claims from Life Hub employees and volunteers, who operate the Winter Freeze shelter, who have stated that the facility has been at capacity each night since opening on December 15.
The Life Hub’s capacity issues have been well documented as local media sources report an urgent need for bunk beds at the facility to meet the demand.
Community members in attendance spoke to this reporter after the meeting, saying they felt “slimy,” and that they were being “gaslit.” They remarked feeling “talked down to” by Councilor Seidler in particular, and were confused why a process for requesting an exemption to the ban was only being discussed today.
A representative from the ACLU of WV delivered a document to city officials today, but as of publication the organization has not returned a request for comment.
Update 1/17/24: The The ACLU of WV has filed a lawsuit to stop enforcement of the cities homeless ban.
Ultimately, the city is on track to conduct sweeps and demolitions of area camps at 5:00 p.m. Wednesday, January 17.
Two members of the public spoke after the meeting regarding the urban camping ban.
Sonya, who previously experienced homelessness for ten years, said the council needed to take a “long term” view of the issue. They spoke of the lack of shelter access in the city, especially for members of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups.
Dr. William Mercer, a street medicine provider and local activist, spoke on behalf of more than two-dozen individuals who signed a letter Monday urging council to suspend the ordinance.
Mercer requested a meeting with council members and stakeholders to discuss the issue, and presented an individual encampment plan to the body. He says if the ban is allowed to take effect there would be consequences, alluding to a potential lawsuit by the ACLU of WV.
In other council news, the city is reporting an increase in revenue as compared to last year. City expenditures are on track with the fiscal year.
Several members of council, including Councilor Dave Palmer, Ward 6, Councilor Ty Thorngate, Ward 5, Vice Mayor Chad Thalman, Ward 1, Seidler, and Sklavounakis, spoke out about a Parks and Recreation fee increase for advertisements at area baseball fields.
Thorngate, who led the opposition, said the fees were raised from $100 to $300 per year for organizations to advertise, with 20% of that fee going to the city. Thorngate said the city should keep its hands off the funds as baseball and softball clubs struggle with their finances.
The city launched a website to announce updates on the ongoing downtown Streetscape project, which has seen several major roads and sidewalks closed, affecting businesses, pedestrians, and drivers alike.
Damage to a sewer line on Main Street and 12th Street, caused by the Streetscape project, will see repairs begin on Thursday, January 18, affecting traffic on 12th Street in downtown.
The Market Street bridge, which connects the Center Market and Downtown neighborhoods and has been closed for over a year, will see repairs begin by next week with an expected completion date of June 2024.
A program to repair city-owned sidewalks will go out to bid by contractors either late January or early February, according to the city manager. Vice Mayor Thalman has been a champion of this project for several months.
The Tunnel Green, which serves as a major component of the Wheeling Heritage trail and has been closed for over a month, was estimated to cost $500,000 to repair. The tunnel was closed after several bricks fell from the ceiling due to water leakage. There is no timeline for repairs.
Council proposed a levy for the May 10, 2024 election, increasing taxes to be allocated to the Ohio Valley Regional Transit Authority, which provides bus lines connecting the many spread-out neighborhoods of Wheeling, as well as Benwood, McMechen, and Moundsville.
The bus route to Moundsville connects Wheeling residents to the nearest DMV location.
The levy, if passed, would see taxes on residential property increase by 8.16 cents per $100, and taxes on all other properties by 16.32 cents per $100, both of current assessed value.
The proposal estimates the levy would provide an additional $1,529,160 in taxes collected.
The Hudson Editorial is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.