The Elma City Council on Monday unanimously approved an ordinance aimed at deterring trains from stopping in the city.
If a train is stopped for more than 20 minutes, it now will be considered a Class I civil infraction and subject to a fine of $250. Both Councilmen Jim Taylor and Pat Miller were reluctant to vote for the ordinance because of the low fine amount but joined the other council members in voting for the ordinance.
Mayor Jim Sorensen, who was absent from the meeting for personal reasons, originally sought a fine of $3,000 for each violation. However, a violation to incur a fine that high would require a more severe citation, such as a gross misdemeanor.
Sorensen’s justification for the higher fine was based off a fine enacted in Ordinance No. 39, which was written in 1890 and charged $50 per instance where trains blocked city streets. Sorensen said that in today’s dollars, that fine would be more than $3,000.
“The city is on good solid ground for complaining,” said attorney Dana Williams, who was filling in at the meeting in place of city attorney Jim Buzzard. Williams has seen success in similar fights and believes this option has the best chance of producing the expected results.
“They’ll likely be paying this fine until one of the bosses says, ‘There’s too many fines with the city of Elma. Fix it,’ ” Williams said.
He also cautioned the city against more severe penalties because of more expensive court processes.
“A civil infraction makes a whole difference as to the expense of the city moving forward with litigation proceedings,” Williams said.
Williams also cautioned against more severe penalties for the railroad companies because of federal government oversight of the industry.
The reason Elma has a good grievance, according to Williams, is because Elma granted an easement for trains to pass through town and not a right-of-way.
“The railway has a right-of-way everywhere else,” Councilman Charles Butterfield said. “In the city of Elma, it’s an easement, which will stand up more so in court.”
“But ‘stand up more so in court’ is still not guaranteed,” Williams responded.
The fight between Elma and railroad companies parking trains in the city dates back to the late 1890s.
The Elma Council likely will revisit more severe penalties as it evaluates how the ordinance is received.