PARKERSBURG, W.Va. – With a pair of 5-4 votes, City Council on Tuesday brought back and approved the first reading of a previously rejected ordinance lifting a nearly 70-year-old ban on fortune-telling and related practices in Parkersburg.
A one-third reduction in the floodwall fee passed by the same margin, and the city charter was amended to bring some provisions in line with state code during council’s regular meeting Tuesday.
Afterward, Mayor Jimmy Colombo said the sand volleyball courts at City and Southwood parks would be closed after a young woman was injured by a broken beer bottle at the City Park site.
City resident Heather Cooper asked council to repeal the ban on fortune-telling, palmistry and other trades devoted to “the foretelling of future events” after she was initially denied a business license for her tarot card-reading business because of it. Council rejected a repeal ordinance by a 5-3 vote in July, but court rulings submitted by attorney John Ellem on Cooper’s behalf and the advice of City Attorney Joe Santer swayed Councilman Roger Brown to reconsider. Councilman Mike Reynolds, absent for the first vote, also supported the measure Tuesday.
“My advice to council would be to pass this and repeal this,” Santer said during the meeting. “It is in violation of the Constitution.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia recently sent the city a letter saying the ban “is an unconstitutional restriction of speech.”
During the meeting’s public forum, two members of the prayer group that has met regularly with the mayor’s office since 1998 spoke against the repeal, citing the Bible’s prohibitions against such practices.
One of them, Washington, W.Va., resident Janie Baer, compared the situation to the scriptural account in Acts 16, when the apostle Paul and Silas were imprisoned for casting out a “spirit of divination” from a slave girl. As the men were freed by an earthquake, Baer said, the city would be protected by God against lawsuits and retaliation for keeping the ban.
“He will stand up for the City of Parkersburg for not letting this witchcraft in here,” she said.
City resident Rob Noland, who is running for council, said the issue was a First Amendment question.
“I am also a Christian. But God gave us free will,” he said. “We have fortune-telling every day in the newspaper. We have strip clubs. We have gambling joints, but I don’t hear anyone complaining about those.”
The motion to renew the previously rejected ordinance and pass it on first reading was opposed by Councilwomen Nancy Wilcox and Sharon Lynch, Councilman Jim Reed and Council President John Rockhold.
The floodwall fee reduction passed 5-4, with Wilcox, Lynch, Reed and Rockhold maintaining their opposition to it.
At Wilcox’s request, city Finance Director Eric Jiles said the floodwall fee brings in approximately $135,000 a year at its current level and the system costs about $132,000 a year to maintain. Public Works Director Rick Lemley said maintenance is constantly needed and while the annual budgeted amount usually covers it, he can’t guarantee that will always be enough.
“The money that we’re letting go in this floodwall fee, we’re taking it from something else,” Wilcox said.
The cut is expected to reduce city revenue by about $45,000. The motivation among supporters of cutting the fee is the projected $5 million a year in revenue from the 1 percent sales tax enacted last year, which was partially offset by a $2 million cut to business and occupation taxes.
The fee is assessed on property owners in the floodplain protected by the floodwall. While Wilcox and others point out those individuals save money on their insurance, Councilman J.R. Carpenter said it’s unfair that they’ve been the only ones paying for the floodwall for 64 years.
“It affects the entire city, regardless,” he said.
The final readings of ordinances aligning the dates for the city’s budget documents with state code and removing two-year residency requirements for the mayor and council members and the 25-year-old minimum age for mayor passed 9-0 and 8-1, with Lynch opposed to the candidacy requirements measure. No one spoke at public hearings for the ordinances Tuesday night and no written statements were submitted in opposition, so the changes will take effect.
During the public forum, city resident Sharon Kuhl, a candidate for council in the upcoming election, said a woman with an intellectual disability was severely cut Tuesday afternoon by a broken beer bottle buried in the sand at the City Park volleyball court.
“We have got to make our parks safe for our children,” said Kuhl, a member of the Friends of Parkersburg’s Parks group. “We have got to make sure that they are safe every morning.”
Colombo said he learned of the incident just prior to Tuesday’s meeting. The sand volleyball courts at both City and Southwood parks will be roped off this morning, he said.
In other business, the final reading of an ordinance prohibiting people from leaving trash cans at the pickup spot more than a day in advance or 24 hours after the designated time passed 5-4, with Wilcox, Lynch, Bigley and Rockhold opposed. Council unanimously voted to accept the donation of the former south Parkersburg library building and donate a ladder truck the city is no longer using to the Waverly Volunteer Fire Department.