Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Politics is a disease

I've blogged a few times about politics in my little St. Louis suburb (see "Because they can," part one and part two) but I've refrained from focusing on it in the past, out of worry that my comments might damage my significant other's ability to do her job as an elected official. That's no longer a concern: Last night, Tamara Millay announced her resignation, effective January 1st, as the city marshal of Greendale, Missouri. I'll get to why in a moment, but I'll preface it with this: I shouldn't have worried. Her attempt to serve her fellow citizens was stymied at every turn, from the very beginning, anyway -- by the city's mayor and board of aldermen (or, if you wish, alderpersons).

From the top, then:

In the spring of 2004, we became aware that the board had placed a measure on the ballot to eliminate the office of city marshal as an elected office, and to replace that office with a board-appointed "compliance officer." This struck us as a very bad idea ... but it appeared so certain to pass that not a single candidate had filed for election to the office. So, we spent several days and $23 in a "guerilla campaign" to defeat the measure and elect Tamara as a write-in candidate. And it worked: The measure went down by about 2 to 1, and Tamara was elected with the vast majority of write-in votes (if memory serves, 29 votes for Tamara, two for misspellings of Tamara's name, and one for somebody else -- yes, it was a small election; it's a small town).

The backlash started almost immediately -- actually, before the election was even over. At least one board member objected to the language on our fliers, which stated Tamara's platform: That she intended to work to protect the property and safety of the citizens, not to act as a revenue-raising ticket-writer for the board. The counter-argument: "It's not about the money, it's about enforcing the ordinances." Maybe so, maybe not -- but I note that I've attended hardly a board meeting since when the same board member hasn't brought up revenues from enforcement as an important issue.

The attempts to undo the voters' clearly expressed desires dragged on for a year-and-a-half:

First, the board tried to put over the notion that she was required by law to attend a 120-hour police academy. I guess they didn't think she could use the Internet or the phone -- it took about five minutes before the election to establish, and about five minutes after the election to re-establish, that the law requiring such training had been repealed and that the state's Police Officer Standards and Training Commission imposed no such requirement. Confronted with the facts, the board backed down.

Then, in an effort to get around the fact that Tamara wasn't going to be a doormat and write tickets at the demand of any city official who had an ax to grind, the board appointed a "deputy marshal" so that little things like common sense, common courtesy and just plain civilized behavior wouldn't interfere with their desire to have tickets handed out like candy.

Next came the "trash can controversy." Deep in the ordinance book (there are almost as many pages in the ordinance book as there are people in the city) was an old ordinance requiring trash containers to be kept out of sight of the street. All of a sudden, the board wanted it enforced. We took a survey of one of the longer streets in town, and found that of 22 properties, precisely two were in compliance -- one of them belonging to an alderwoman, the other a vacant house. One of the properties which was not in compliance was a lot owned by ... the city of Greendale.

But, the board wanted the ordinance enforced. Okie, dokie ... so, in keeping with her promise to the people of Greendale, Tamara went about it in her way. The first thing we did was deliver a flier to every house in the city informing them of the ordinance's existence, notifying them that, two weeks hence, those not in compliance would be cited, and pointing out that if they had objections, they should make those objections at the board meeting which would take place before tickets would be issued. In delivering these fliers, I talked to one gentleman who had kept his trash can in the same place for forty years without a complaint from the city or anyone else. I attended the board meeting as an interested citizen, and pointed out that when an ordinance has a 95% non-compliance rate, the problem is probably with the ordinance, not with the citizens. The reply was precisely what I expected -- the board's patented "we're the government, we'll do whatever we want" smirk.

Eventually -- but not soon enough in the opinion of our Most Exalted Leaders -- tickets were issued. And then what happened? The mayor insisted that some of them shouldn't have been issued, because the owners of the properties in question lived in corner houses where it was more difficult to comply (I haven't found it difficult to drag my trash container inside the garage, nor did I find any exception in the ordinance for corner houses). The board hadn't particularly wanted the ordinance enforced. They'd just wanted something to bitch about, and some way to claim that the city marshal "wasn't doing her job."

This went on for a year-and-a-half, folks ... frankly, I'm surprised that Tamara put up with it for as long as she did. The ultimate insult to fact and reason, however, was yet to come.

Last night, the mayor presented the board with a "Bill of Impeachment" -- mostly a laundry list of incidents in which the marshal had not issued tickets quickly enough to satisfy the mayor (despite the fact that in a memorandum to the marshal late last year, the mayor emphasized that tickets were to be issued "within the marshal's timeframe," not the mayor's). There was nothing in this screed which rose to the legal definitions of cause required for impeachment of an elected official. Tamara was not accused of abusing her office, or of taking or giving bribes, or of corruption. She was accused of doing the job in the way she'd promised to do it and in the way the people had elected her to do it, rather than doing it the way the mayor wanted it done. The only accusation which didn't amount to a difference of opinion between the mayor on one hand and the marshal and the people of Greendale on the other was that she'd missed a court appearance early in her term (true -- she hadn't thought she was supposed to be there, and subsequently corrected it).

Since we knew this was coming (it had been mentioned at the previous meeting and she'd received a copy of the "Bill of Impeachment" a couple of days before this one), we talked it over extensively. I advised her to fight, on the grounds that if you turn your back on politicians -- especially these politicians -- you're likely to feel a knife slipping between your ribs a few seconds later. I knew she could defeat the "Bill" in court before the hearing was ever held, since it contained no accusations of any impeachable offense. And I knew that if she actually let the hearing occur, we could have numerous citizens present to bludgeon the board into doing the right thing and giving up their latest attempt to have their way at the expense of the voter's unequivocally expressed desires.

On the other hand, her "real" job has become more time-consuming as she's been promoted, and she's grown tired of wasting time on these games that she could be spending with her family instead. Tamara ran for the job because nobody else had filed for it, because she believed that the office should remain elected, and because she wanted to prove that a Libertarian can work and play well with others to do some good "within the system." And she did prove that, in a sense. Unfortunately, she also proved, to her dismay, that "the system" has no intention of working and playing well with ... well, with anyone.

I didn't know until she actually arrived at the board meeting what her decision was going to be. She let me know right before it started that she was resigning. After the mayor made a show of how expensive it was going to be to hire a court reporter for the impeachment hearing, and how the ruling could be appealed in the courts, etc., "if the board passes the bill," I half expected her to change her mind and ram it down their throats -- to make them actually put up or shut up for once. However, she's a better person than I am ... she went ahead and tendered her resignation, after making it clear that the charges were spurious and that her main concern was getting back to real life, doing real things instead of fighting with them. She didn't put it that bluntly, but she's decided she no longer wants to be a cast member in the board's perpetual remake of Animal Farm. Unfortunately, we still have to live on the set.

So, Tamara stole the board's thunder -- and mine. I was up for a fight. Fortunately, I have one in reserve if I start feeling my oats (an illegal tax increase -- or, if you prefer, an illegal new fee assessment -- of $200 per year per household to cover the board's ass on a trash removal contract, without the required referendum), and the board went out of its way to give me a new one (they're putting their "let us appoint a marshal to harass you" measure on the ballot again -- and I'm going to beat it again).

As for myself, I'm starting to seriously look for a twelve-step program. I'm an anarchist. Really. I hate politics, and I hate local politics above all. I'd just as soon send the soulless creatures known as "politicians" scurrying for the nearest rock to hide under, or maybe in front of a wall with a last cigarette and a blindfold. Unfortunately -- hopefully more so for those who arouse my ire than for myself -- I'm addicted to real politics. At least I'm fairly good at it it, and at least I have my fixes lined up for the next couple of years ensuring that various wrongs are righted and that certain officials stand no chance of re-election. But I'd much rather get the monkey off my back.

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