Sunday, May 13, 2012

Water for Scofflaws

Sure doesn’t look like the City of Las Cruces will cut off anyone’s water because of traffic violations.

The general threat to do so had generated a firestorm of "Sound-Off" calls, letters to the editor, and e-mails to everyone on the City Council.

The specific threat, in letters to five property owners, quickly led to payment plans with, or full payment by, four scofflaws with a total of thousands of dollars in unpaid tickets.

(Since Mayor Ken Miyagashima had such difficulty pronouncing it at Monday’s Council Meeting, let’s take a moment on the word "scofflaw." Many words derive from a proper name, such as "I’ll xerox that" or "Hand me a kleenex." More come from Latin or Greek or German or French. Others start as some clever remark, get repeated often enough to become common slang, and eventually make the dictionary. Scofflaw was the winning entry in a contest in 1923 in Boston. The contest sought a new word for "a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor." (Yep, Prohibition was in full force.) Delcevere King, a rich Prohibitionist from nearby Quincy, offered a $200 prize for a word that would "stab the conscience" of the evil alcohol consumers. Two separate contestants submitted "scofflaw," and divided the prize.)

The purported legal basis for the letters was a 1988 ordinance allowing the City to cut off utility service to folks who owed it any money. For the record, the City hasn’t said it’ll send no more threatening letters, but only that it won’t do so before a June 25th work session. But I’ll eat a copy of the ordinance if the City continues this silliness.

"Sure was dumb," a friend said as we left the council meeting.

Mayor Miyagashima, in a somewhat defensive opening statement, had danced real hard to avoid saying the same thing that directly. He patted himself and the council on the back for responding quickly to a storm of protest; but he didn’t apologize, or speak as frankly as my friend.

I doubt the City would ever really have turned off anyone’s water. Someone must have talked to a City Attorney. Any lawyer -- and most any sensible human being -- would realize you couldn’t risk turning off utilities on a family of seven renting from a scofflaw. What if you turned off the heat for a scofflaw’s spouse and kids during a separation? (A clever fellow angry at his wife might even start racing through certain intersections to run up a dozen tickets as fast as possible. "That’ll show her!")

An attorney might approve letters threatening to turn off utilities. But okaying actual cessation of service? Just too many potential dangers and uncertainties. Could we even be absolutely sure it was legal for the City, as a utility operator, to do something like this that no private utility could do? If someone got hurt, and high-priced trial lawyers were arguing the legal issues at hearings or a trial, the City would spend far more than it had collected, even if it won.

So I’ll speculate that they’d never actually have done it – and I’ll suggest that if their Law Department approved cutting off utilities on scofflaw’s accounts, someone might want to schedule a closed-door work session to discuss personnel. But I’m not quite a licensed attorney in the State of New Mexico, and haven’t researched it, so maybe I should shut up.

Legality aside, the episode was ill-considered.

It scared some scofflaws and netted some money. But at what cost?

A lot of people were and are furious about red-light cameras. The whole idea seems too Big-Brotherish. And unfair: we grew up drinking our fill and speeding like the devil, and the cops were obligated to spot us or chase us. These cameras are as sporting as shining a bright light at a deer so he freezes for an easy shot, instead of showing some skill and accuracy by sneaking up on him. (Personally, I dislike the cameras; but if I were on the Council I’d probably approve their use.)

The utility shut-off angered folks even more. It just ain’t right. If I didn’t finish paying El Paso Electric for a used van I was buying, the utility couldn’t cut off service. Too, public versus private operation of utilities is a question people of different political persuasions argue about sometimes. Why create ammunition for those who say the City should leave such activities to private enterprise?

Citizens’ trust is a valuable commodity. City governments are unwise to squander it. We need to trust that the City is looking out for us; and where it’s in the utility business, we need to know the City is playing fair with us. This clever idea didn’t feel fair to most of us, and undermined that trust.

What hasn’t been said is that the council didn’t know about these letters in advance. Several learned of it when they got the first complaining e-mails, and weren’t happy. On the other hand, none publically disavowed it immediately, so far as I know. None told the City Manager or the public that s/he disapproved. (Miyagashima had even mentioned the possibility publically a couple of months ago.)

I like the folks who run our city. But I’d like ‘em better if they had stepped up at Monday’s meeting (or earlier) and said, "We screwed up here. We’re sorry."
[The foregoing column ran in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 13 May.

For readers from outside Doña Ana County: City orf Las Cruces has had, for several years, red-light cameras at a couple of intersections.   They are highly unpopular, although there is some evidence that they decrease the frequency of serious crashes at the intersections in question. 

Recently, the city announced that it would turn off utilities (water and gas) to the homes of flagrant scofflaws -- those with vast numbers of unpaid traffic tickets who have ignored notice by certified mail that they must pay up or else.   The city actually sent out five letters making the threat.  Four resulted in immediate payment or payment plans; the fifth, according to one city councilor, was to someone who'd left the jurisdiction already.  (Another city councilor had told me the fifth was actually to the address of a different property owned by one of the four recipients who agreed to pay.)  In addition, there's been a firestorm of Letters-to-the-Editor and phoned in Sound-Offs -- mostly excoriating the City, but some saying sympathy for scofflaws was fatuous, and they should obey the law or face the consequences. 

We went down to City Hall for Monday's Council meeting, at which there was to be public input on the issue.  There was some, primarily against the City's position, although at least one speaker expressed the "if you break the law you have no complaint about the city trying to collect" view.]  Even before any public input, the City announced that although there was nothing wrong with the policy - that the city officials who came up with it were "doing what they are supposed to do" -- it would be suspended, pending a work session later this month to discuss it.  These remarks, by the Mayor, referenced the storm of  e-mails received by himself and the councilors. 

One suggestion that didn't make it into the column but is worth municipal consideration: at the red-light-camera intersections, add to the traffic signals the count-down system, which would help drivers judge whether or not they can legally make it through the intersection.]

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