Standing before the Ann Arbor City Council with her head bowed and voice soft but resolute, 15-year-old Alex Semifaro recalled the last time she saw her step-brother Renden LeMasters.
It was Easter Sunday, but instead of sitting down to the usual family dinner, Semifaro said she sat in a hospital room watching LeMasters fight for his life.
“If I could take away that memory … I would do it in a heartbeat,” Semifaro said.
LeMasters — a 22-year-old student at Eastern Michigan University — was killed in an on-campus house fire on Apr. 3, 2010 that authorities say started with a porch couch catching fire.
At its meeting last night, City Council unanimously passed an ordinance banning upholstered furniture on porches citywide. The ordinance — which could fine violators up to $1,000 — dates back to 2004, when the council indefinitely postponed voting on a similar measure. The council revisited the ordinance in the wake of LeMasters’s death.
Though the ordinance passed with complete support from the Council, students expressed opposition to the ban. Rackham student government officials at the meeting complained that the ban required more research before being passed and in a statement issued late last night, Michigan Student Assembly officials wrote that the ban does not adequately address fire safety.
Before the meeting, about 25 of LeMasters’s family, friends, and supporters gathered outside City Hall holding signs reading “VOTE YES” with a large picture of LeMasters underneath.
Among those present was LeMasters’ father, Bob LeMasters, who said in an interview that the passage of the ordinance would provide some sense of closure for his family.
“When someone loses their life, we need to take whatever steps we can,” Bob LeMasters said. “We’re just trying to do what we can.”
LeMasters’s brother, Ryan LeMasters, added that the passage of the ordinance would be the sole positive outcome of Renden’s death.
“We need to do something about why he died,” Ryan LeMasters said in an interview.
During the public hearings section of City Council’s meeting, several other members of LeMasters’ family spoke in favor of the ordinance and harshly criticized City Council’s postponement of the 2004 proposed ban.
“One of the single most amazing people I have ever met is gone now because this law wasn’t passed before,” Semifaro told the council.
In a separate address, LeMasters’ stepmother Dianna said she wished it hadn’t taken Renden’s death for City Council to seriously consider the ordinance.
“One death is too many, especially if it can be solved very easily,” Dianna LeMasters said.
However, the public hearings section concluded with two strong voices of opposition from the University community.
In their addresses to the council, University graduate students Michael Benson and Cherisse Loucks — the president and treasurer of the Rackham Student Government respectively — said that at a recent RSG meeting, group members were largely opposed to the ordinance.
“I don’t understand the justification of this fine amount,” Loucks said. “I think it just needs a lot more thought and research before it can be passed.”
Nevertheless, the ordinance passed amidst loud applause and cheers.
Afterward, LeMasters’s family and supporters spilled out into the lobby for a bittersweet celebration.
In an interview, LeMasters’s brother Ryan called the passage of the ordinance a “relief.”
“I’m glad … he’ll be remembered through this community,” Ryan LeMasters said.
In supporting the ordinance, Council member Christopher Taylor (D–Ward 2) said he hopes the ban will be viewed by the community-at-large as a safety measure rather than a penalty.
“It is my hope and expectation that this (ordinance) will rarely, if ever, result in a nickel being assessed to anyone,” Taylor said.
In an interview after the meeting, Ann Arbor Fire Marshall Kathleen Chamberlain echoed Taylor’s wish, saying the Fire Department will issue ample warning before actually handing out a fine.
According to Chamberlain, those in violation of the ordinance will first be issued a “pre-citation” which will offer a “reasonable” period of time during which to remove the furniture.
Nevertheless, MSA officials spoke out strongly against the passage of the ordinance in their press release.
“The City Council failed to genuinely consult students and the proposal will do little to address comprehensive fire safety reform,” the press release states.
Despite the assembly’s opposition to the ordinance, MSA vowed in the release to “build a strong working relationship with the City Council over fire safety reform and other issues.”