Motels and hotels in Costa Mesa that draw "excessive" amounts of police attention will now have to pay for the extra trouble.
The City Council passed the Excessive Use of Resources Ordinance on Tuesday after a second reading, with a majority — Mayor Jim Righeimer, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger and Councilman Gary Monahan — contending that the law will help keep problematic properties in line and force them to clean up their act.
Councilwomen Sandy Genis and Wendy Leece, as well as several area innkeepers and their supporters, countered that the law would inhibit people from calling the police for fear of a fine, which in turn would endanger guests.
The ordinance is designed to reimburse city coffers for the "excessive amount of police resources" used to handle recurring "nuisance activities," according to a city staff report. Nuisance activities, according to the ordinance's definition, include persistent noise, gang-related crime, illegal use of a firearm, disturbing the peace, illegal use or sale of fireworks, drug possession or sale, underage drinking, loud parties, and the commission or attempted commission of a violent felony.
Reporting domestic violence and summoning the Fire Department and ambulance services are not considered nuisance activities under the ordinance.
"Excessive" is defined as above an average of 0.4 calls per room per month. All motels and hotels within the city limits will be affected.
"This whole ordinance is based upon the fact that if you operate like a majority of the hotels and you manage your issues, you don't have problems," Mensinger said, adding that some motel owners, whom he called "slumlords," expect the Police Department to be practically their on-site security staff.
Righeimer acknowledged that Costa Mesa motels act as homes to people who have nowhere else to go, but that living conditions in some are deplorable and shouldn't be tolerated.
"We are compassionate people … but this is not a way to run a business," he said. "This is not a way to run a city. This is not a way to run these properties."
Leece and Genis voted in favor of the ordinance during its first reading Dec. 3 but reversed course in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's vote. The two met with some motel owners earlier this month, as did Righeimer and Mensinger in December.
Leece called the ordinance a burden on small businesses levied by a "growing government" and "more bureaucracy."
"I'm disappointed that we've come this far," she said, calling for a more collaborative effort with innkeepers to solve any problems.
"I think we're opening a Pandora's box to encourage crime," Leece said.
Genis questioned the logic of singling out motels for their use of police services when apartments, bars and shopping areas might be equally troublesome.
"I've yet to see the data that tells me they are the problem business," she said.
She added that based on her conversations with residents, crime at motels hasn't been a hot topic.
"I don't remember anyone saying, 'What are we gonna do about those ol' horrible motels?'" Genis said.
Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Public Law Center, Taiwan Hotel & Motel Assn. of Southern California and at least three motel properties — the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, New Harbor Inn and Sandpiper Motel — spoke against the ordinance. Some affordable-housing advocates also urged the council not to pass the law, contending that it would hurt the poor who rely on motels for shelter and might otherwise be out on the streets.
Lili Graham of the Santa Ana-based Public Law Center said the ordinance would deter crime reporting and thus give motel owners police-like authority to handle problems.
"That's giving a lot of power to landlords, who are business people, not police officers," she said.
Jack Chen of the New Harbor Inn, 2205 Harbor Blvd., said the ordinance would "drive the wedge between the innkeeper and the police." He mentioned a 1990s city effort — which Monahan supported at the time — that encouraged motel owners to call police in order to deter crime.
"We do not want nuisance activity on our properties, and so we have mutual goals," Chen said.
Hector Almaraz, manager of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, 2277 Harbor Blvd., said motel operators cannot screen guests adequately to deter crime. A motel stay doesn't require the same amount of background or credit checks like an renting apartment would, he said.
"Are we supposed to search guests?" Almaraz said. "Know all gang signs? Get urine samples?"
The Motor Inn was one of the motels targeted last year for a comprehensive inspection by city code enforcement officers, who alleged 490 health and safety violations at the 236-room property. The raid resulted in more than $40,000 in fines, though about $23,000 of that amount was eventually voided after some of the problems were fixed.
According to police data, the New Harbor Inn's 32 rooms generated 261 calls for service in 2012. The Motor Inn generated 568 calls for service in 2012 — the most of any motel or hotel property in the city. The Sandpiper Motel, 1967 Newport Blvd., had 142 in 2011, the latest data available. It has 44 rooms.
[For the record, 4:30 p.m. Jan. 9: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the threshold for "excessive" in the ordinance is .04 calls per room. In fact, the threshold is 0.4 calls per room.]