McKeesport council OKs memorial ordinance
McKeesport council approved a controversial ordinance limiting makeshift memorials to a 30-day presence on public property.
The measure was approved in a 4-2 vote on Wednesday evening, with Councilmen Dan Carr and James T. Barry Jr. dissenting. Vice president Dale McCall was absent.
It allows for the placement of informal memorials in the unpaved portion of a public right of way for up to 30 days as long as the display does not cause unsafe conditions for motorists or individuals who visit the memorials. The display must comply with all other applicable laws and a member of the deceased's immediate family must acknowledge responsibility for its placement.
If a memorial is deemed objectionable by an adjacent property owner, it must be removed within seven days. If the memorial is erected in violation of the ordinance's terms, it will be removed within 24 hours.
The ordinance includes an anniversary provision that allows for one display each year that may remain for seven days.
McKeesport resident Keith Murphy, executive director of Bethany House Academy, urged council to reject the ordinance. Murphy has 20 years of experience in working with at-risk and grieving families who have been subjected to a life of violence and other unfortunate circumstances.
In working through neighborhood problems in St. Clair Village and Northview Heights, Murphy attended more than 120 funerals.
“I've seen makeshift memorials throughout these communities, and now I'm seeing it in McKeesport,” Murphy said.
Parents seeking closure see the memorials as a means of coping with cases that have yet to be resolved, Murphy explained.
“This is a constant reminder for that parent to say they are looking for closure,” Murphy said. “They're going to remind the city of McKeesport that they still want justice for their child.”
Makeshift memorials give perpetrators the idea that the community is watching them and that another act of violence will not go unnoticed, Murphy said. For that reason, violent crimes rarely are repeated where a memorial stands.
“You don't see those exchanges happening in the same spaces,” he said.
Pittsburgh neighborhoods have seen residents whose families have been there for generations leaving because they don't want to be part of a community that took the lives of their loved ones. Murphy said he wants to be sure McKeesporters will not leave town because of negativity.
Murphy warned that passage of an ordinance limiting memorials will alienate city residents who depend on those memorials to cope with their grief. He said he doesn't want city officials to seem insensitive.
“If people feel like you don't care about them, that's not the image McKeesport wants,” he said. “This is not the image McKeesport needs.”
Council did not comment on the ordinance during Wednesday's meeting, but discussed it at length on Tuesday.
Carr presented council with a written explanation of his opposition during Tuesday's caucus session and read it into the record.
Carr wanted to go on the record, stating he is against permitting makeshift memorials to be erected on public rights of way. He said he would prefer grieving families keep their displays out of the public eye.
“A cemetery or private site is the most appropriate place to mourn and can provide an eternal, dedicated safe place to grieve,” Carr said.
Carr and Councilwoman V. Fawn Walker-Montgomery disagreed over which opinion represented the majority of McKeesport residents — those disgruntled over the memorials being permitted to remain near city sidewalks, or those saddened by the city's suggestion that they should be removed.
“I don't want to forget the victims who have lost their lives,” Walker-Montgomery said.
Carr said he would be more comfortable telling residents they cannot erect a memorial than he would be in setting a time limit.
“As council, we should not involve ourselves in the ideals of how or how long a person or persons should grieve,” he said. “To offer a time frame for a grieving process is more than insensitive. It is insulting.”
Councilman Jim Barry said city officials are not infringing on the grieving process, but rather steering it away from public streets.
“No one is saying you only have 30 days to grieve,” Barry said. “There needs to be a limit on the public display of grieving.”
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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