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My experience with City Hall bureaucrats and a misapplied business license ordinance

Published 04/04/04

By Rebecca B. Gedda

Staff writer for the Collinsville Herald Journal

 A Collinsville resident and self-employed Information Technology specialist is concerned that the city’s business license program could be infringing on the personal rights of the city’s residents.

“I have no problems with licenses, fees, ordinances or any other legislation, provided that it conforms to the state and federal constitutions,” said Mark McCoy, who works in the areas of personal computers, web design, web hosting, networking, e-mail hosting, consulting, and technical support. “(But) I feel that the people at-large have become negligent in their duty to remain vigilant and thus have allowed the government, on all levels, to usurp their liberties and freedoms.

“I take exception with how the city is misleading people into applying for a license that then gives the city jurisdiction and purview into your personal lives.”

The applications for licenses require such information as the business name, address, and phone number; the owner’s name, address, and phone number; who to contact in an emergency; the type of organization being licensed; maximum number of employees on site at any given time; and disclosure of any hazardous materials kept on the premises.

Those businesses that are licensed or registered through the city will be responsible for compliance of the city’s fire codes.

McCoy said that on March 22, he went into Collinsville City Hall to see if what he did for a living fell under the city’s business license ordinance, which the City Council approved in August.

He said that he was told them that his business did in fact require licensure, and he asked to see the city ordinance that gave the city jurisdiction to require that process.

“I was refused that ordinance,” he said. “They failed to provide either that ordinance or the state statute that gives a municipality the authority to force a business to register or be licensed.”

McCoy said that he was told to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the information he sought.

“I asked for any information pertaining to the ordinance, and was denied because I was told that the city does not have those records,” he said. “They said those records didn’t exist.”

Collinsville’s Freedom of Information Officer and Business License Program Administrator Dawn Cordle said that McCoy’s requests were denied because of the specific information he asked for.

 “First, Mr. McCoy asked me to provide him with a list of all of the city’s ordinances, and that’s just not something we have available,” Cordle said. “Getting a list of that type together would be unduly burdensome to me as the FOI officer, and based on that his request was refused.”

McCoy said that he filed another FOIA request, this time asking for “Public records pertaining to proposing, discussing, debating or enforcing the City of Collinsville Business License including the statutory authority for the making, enacting and enforcement of the City of Collinsville Business License.”

Cordle said that request was denied because state statutes are not part of local public records.

“He never just asked for a copy of the Collinsville business license ordinance,” she said. “I would have given that to him.

“But I can’t provide documentation that is not specifically asked for. That’s illegal. I can’t give someone a document different from what they asked for because I think that might be what they really want.”

McCoy said that he feels that Cordle misinterpreted his request.

“Obviously I wasn't asking solely for the supporting state legislation, but they used that as an out to providing me with the rest of the information,” he said.

At the crux of his argument, McCoy said that he doesn’t consider himself to be a “business” and therefore shouldn’t be forced to be licensed or registered through the city.

“I don’t have a business name – I’m just an independent person,” he said. “I don’t invite people into my home, though I may get calls or letters or e-mails from people requesting my services.

“When I pointed that out to (Nadia Brahler, the temporary city staff member working on the business licenses process), she asked if I had a computer and a fax machine,” he said. “When I said yes, she said that makes me a business.”

But McCoy feels that generalization is unfair. On March 24, he sent a letter to Brahler, with copies going to City Manager Hank Sinda, Mayor Stan Schaeffer, and City Council members Fred Dalton, Rick Rehg, Joy Springer, and Jim Pulley.

In that letter he said that if he is considered a business because he owns a computer and a fax machine, he should also be given business license applications because of other things he has in his home.

The letter stated that those applications should be send for a mechanic’s business, because he has wrenches and tools; a cleaning business, because he has brooms and rags; and a bakery, because he has a stove and ingredients.

“Obviously, I was being sarcastic,” McCoy said. “I feel that this whole thing is nefarious and pervasive.”

Cordle said that as far as the city is concerned, what McCoy does for a living does constitute a business.

“If someone provides a service or product in return for money, that’s a business,” she said. “By the same token, Tupperware distributors also have in-home businesses.”

McCoy said that for the city of Collinsville to force this kind of policy is unfair.

“Working for a living is an inherent and unalienable right,” he said. “To take that right and turn it into a privilege is unscrupulous, nefarious and disingenuous.”

McCoy said that the $25 fee for business licenses is not part of his concern.

“I am indignant over the city exploiting the ignorance of the people and am as equally dismayed that the people may be too indifferent to ask questions and claim their rights,” he said. “I want to bring this to the community's attention and hopefully garner enough interest to overturn this ordinance.”

Cordle said that in response to McCoy’s concerns, and to prevent any other resident from feeling as if the city is trying to enforce unfair or nonexistent ordinances, she has put a copy of the business license ordinance on the front counter at City Hall.

“This issue has raised only a minor amount of concern,” she said. “Only a handful of people have had problems with this ordinance.”

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