Thursday, July 21, 2005

Because they can, part one


Like most people, I occasionally allow myself to be lulled into complacency by arguments for "decentralization" and "local control." The theory, such as it is, is that the lower the level of government, the closer it is to the people and therefore the more amenable it is to being reined in and kept from getting to big for its britches.

It doesn't take much to explode this theory. One need look no further than Kelo v. City of New London -- the basis of a recent, and very bad, Supreme Court ruling -- to get an idea of just how predatory local government can be.

But if you really, really, really want to see the whole nauseating spectacle up close and personal, just attend a meeting of your own local governing body.

I live in a small city, albeit one right smack in the middle of a metro area. Fewer than 800 people -- and the city ordinances, in book form, seem to weigh 800 pounds. There's an ordinance telling you how many holes per inch your window screens have to have. There's an ordinance prescribing placement of your garbage cans. Hell, there's even an ordinance asserting that the city owns the land between the sidewalks and the street -- and another one stating that property owners have to mow the grass on that land in front of their homes (apparently nobody's told them about the Emancipation Proclamation).

One of these days, I'm going to comb through that ordinance book very carefully and find out if it's possible to get a measure on the ballot to rename the city. Pyongyang has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

So, how did such a little town get such a big case of bad law? To understand that, one need only attend a meeting of the board of alderpersons. I've done so on several occasions -- my significant other isn't on the board proper, but she is an elected city official. Usually, I honyock around outside with the kids during the meeting, but occasionally we go inside to see what's up. "Sausage being made" doesn't even begin to describe it.

How did we get so many laws?

Well, for one thing, it appears that local politicians have difficulty saying "no." When an ordinance is being considered, it is given a bill number and, if passed, an ordinance number. On the agenda Tuesday night, I heard these being called out. For example, "Bill Number 527, Ordinance Number 517." What this means is that (as of that time), 527 bills had been moved ... and 517 of them had been passed. That's a rejection rate of less than one in 50. Break wind near city hall and there'll be a flatulence ordinance on the books next week.

Not only do local politicians have a problem with saying "no" -- at least to proposals to regulate how bright the sun may shine and during what hours it may rise above the horiizon -- but they also seem to have a problem with ... um ... how shall I put this ... paying any attention to precisely what it is that they're passing. For example, at the Tuesday meeting, the board adopted the county's new building codes. They did so by reading title -- not the text -- of the ordinance twice, and then counting yeas and nays (there were none of the latter).

I'm sure these were very long, very complicated codes. Hell, it took two minutes to read the titles. The philosophy of local government seems to be that if something is too long to read, digest and understand it ... just pass it and let the peasants bear the consequences. Those building codes are the basis for home inspections in the city. In order to get an occupancy permit, one's home has to pass those inspections. The logic in adopting the county codes is that the city contracts with the county to do the inspections.

Now, these codes may make differences of thousands of dollars to any given household in the city. It seems to me that if the board is going to make decisions with that kind of impact, it should probably take the time to know just exactly what the hell that impact is before doing so. If they can't be bothered to understand what they're doing with the inspection process, then the logical thing to do is to do away with the inspection process. Fat chance. Actually let people live unmolested in their homes? Perish the thought -- surely humanity didn't rise from the primordial soup all the way to the Space Age without the diligent supervision of the bureaucracy!

The saddest event of the night, however, was watching the board do its damnedest to destroy a woman's livelihood for no better reason than that they could.

To Be Continued

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