There is a Veterans Hall right in downtown Santa Cruz. It’s called “Veterans Memorial,” says so on its facade. It’s next door to the US Post Office and across the street from a marble monument to those children of the county who participated in World War One or in World War Two.
Every Wednesday morning, a group of older men and a couple of women, wearing Veteran badges and holding up a Veteran flag as well as a US flag meet near the monument to sing songs. They don’t sing especially patriotic songs but rather goodies and oldies. This morning, they gave a beautiful rendition of “Lily Marlene.” One old guy volunteered that he was sorry no one there knew the words in German. (For those of you who get your culture from Twitters: “Lily Marlene” was a rare thing, a tube sung by both sides in the European theater during the second world war.) Mostly, usually, they sing “Home on the Range’” and the like.
Another old guy told me that the group is not allowed to meet inside the Veterans building when the weather is inclement without paying the county a fee. Veterans’ Memorial is not freely available to veterans. It’s a small group; they don’t seem prosperous. Perhaps the fee is the method used by the county to keep the homeless out. It’s true that the group of singers looks a little scruffy. Some are old men who don’t live with a woman. Some are down and out homeless. Some are veterans who are homeless.
The decidedly left-wing municipal council of the City of Santa Cruz uses all kinds of artifices to contain and corral the homeless population. It wouldn’t be surprising if the county did something similar. I don’t know that it does. It sounds credible though. I will look into it.
I am not saying there is no problem with the homeless concerning more than those who are homeless. I have spoken about it before. The methods used to deal with them just make me deeply uneasy from a constitutional standpoint. The latent hypocrisy also gets to me. More later.
Two days ago, there was a little ceremony in front of O’Neil’s flagship store, also in downtown Santa Cruz, a block away. Yes, I mean that O’Neil, that genius of entrepreneurship, that hero of capitalism. (For those who read me from overseas: O’Neil is the brand of surfboards then, of beach apparel, you see on every beach in the world. There is actually a Mr O’Neil.) The ceremony was a celebration of PACT. (“People for something or other.”)
PACT was celebrating its first-year anniversary and changing its name to honor a former DA. There were representatives from the DA’s office, from the city police, a couple of social workers, others from various city departments, or county departments, almost all public employees taking paid time off work. I would venture that 90% of those who stopped there for more than one minute were on the public payroll or spouses of such. They were celebrating themselves.
PACT targets “nuisance crimes.” That’s mostly behavior of the homeless population. In its first year, a press release announced, PACT reduced “nuisance crimes” as follows:
“The program focused on 70 repeat offenders during its first year and results show a 70% decrease in arrests and citation recidivism rates. During that period, ambulance runs for those 70 DAP-focused offenders decreased 80%.”
I live downtown, in one of the areas targeted, I think. I did not notice any reduction in nuisances. How come I am not surprised that a new government program announces striking successes? The press release concludes that:
“The Santa Cruz City Council and County Board of Supervisors will be considering the expansion of PACT in their upcoming budget hearings in May and June.” (Bolding mine.)
So, I don’t want to sound persnickety and I am all for initiatives, trying new things where old methods don’t work. What I saw and read on that occasion though is not good enough. I need two more things.
First, I want to be told squarely that the methods used do not violate anyone’s constitutional rights. Even laws that have been on the book forever make me nervous. Anti-loitering laws for one. (Is any man in a conservative coat and tie ever accused of loitering when he is just waiting in the street for his friend?)
Second, to judge a publicly funded program, I always want more info than is provided here. I have no reason to doubt the PACT figures (“70% reduction in…”) – however cherry-picked they may be. They are only performance measurements however. I want cost-benefit, input-output measurements. If a city program resulted in 100% reduction in litter on my street, I would be only guardedly happy. If I found out that my share of the real cost of this achievement was $10,000 annually, I am certain I would want to find out about the cost of a 90% reduction in litter, and so on.
And, by the way, I want the real cost, all included, including pension funding going forward. Sometimes just asking that a bureaucracy calculate the costs of its actions and make them public is enough to alter its course. Sometimes, just demanding that it calculate those costs is enough.
Good government is largely about choosing. I want the elements of choice to be divulged to me as a citizen and as a taxpayer. It’s not too much to ask, I think.
PS Yes, I know, the city council was elected according to fair and clean elections. That’s not enough for me. I want it to do as little as possible on its own.
I sometimes think that the small daily vexations of government do more to wake up regular people than the really big abuses of government. Below is a relevant anecdote.
Seven or eight years ago, the City of Santa Cruz forbade me from cutting the tree figuring in the picture below. It’s a redwood tree. It’s in my tiny front yard. Its invasion of a sewer line cost me $10,000 before I asked humbly for permission to remove the tree. Now, the tree roots are destroying the foundations of my house as well as the sidewalk in front of it. The city says that I am responsible for fixing the sidewalk, indefinitely, apparently because redwood tress grow at least for several hundred years.
Now, to be fair, the City arborist told me a few months ago privately that if I asked for permission to cut the tree again now, it would probably be approved. It does not do me much good now. She said no when I could afford to cut it now, I can’t afford it. Besides, the city insists that I have to pay for a permit to remove the tree I did not want in the first place. This is more offensive than the much higher cost of taking the tree down which involves real work, at least. (It’s true that I bought the property with the tree on it. I had no idea then that I could even be denied the permission to cut a forest tree.) I am quite insensitive to the need of my city to have redwood trees, specifically, within its boundaries.
First, everyone knows that redwoods are destructive. Moreover, they sterilize the area where they grow. Second, it’s not as if our citizens were deprived of trees, as people might be, say, in Arizona. In fact, there is a large forest a four minute drive from my house, seven minutes by bicycle, tops. It’s a 90% redwood forest. It’s not clear to me that I must recognize a duty to subsidize the redwood viewing of residents and visitors who are too lazy to drive or bike there.
Note my delicateness of mind: I admit that many of my fellow Santa Cruzans would be morally torn between the desire to commune with redwood trees, on the one hand and their fervent wish to not contribute to global warming by driving four minutes, on the other hand. But I think they can just bike there, or walk. I also admit that there are people in Santa Cruz who don’t own a car and who are physically unable to bike or walk to the forest. I would be in favor of a city-sponsored collection to bus them to the redwood forest four times each year. I would gladly contribute, voluntarily, that is.
Two deeply different views of the world are at odds here. Now, let me assure you that although I am a conservative, I like trees. I like cherry trees and apple trees mostly, for obvious reasons, but redwoods are OK because they give high grade lumber. And, yes, they look wonderful. That is, they look wonderful where they belong, in a forest, with their brothers and sisters and all the cousins around. My own redwood tree (the tree that my family and the City apparently jointly own) is a object of shame. It’s so bad, that I never use it to give directions to my house although it stands right out. It’s an object of shame because PG&E, the publicly regulated monopoly, has the right to shape it in any way it chooses. I am sure there are technicalities that escape me here but the shape it prefers makes my redwood tree look like an old, overused toilet brush. Sorry for the vision, I call them as I see them!
Well, I planted a yellow rose bush nearby and the bush found the spot attractive. It grew and grew under my firm benign neglect. Eventually, it had to discover that the nearby redwood tree makes a good ladder to the sun. The result is in the photo above. Well, I think you are not going to believe this but a member of the leftist and left-liberal city council complained about the rose bush on the tree. She says it looks unkempt. Here you have it – not left-wing thought, there is no thinking involved here – but the leftist temperament in a nutshell: Things have to be neat; personal preferences do not matter; bureaucracies give you predictability even if at stupendous cost, the market is inherently messy. We must have order even if it impoverishes our lives.
In the conventional wisdom, as you become older, you tend to like order more and more. That is, with age, one is supposed to become more “conservative” in the traditional sense of the term. Personally, I have escaped the curse. Instead, I find myself resenting more and more the growing imposition of petty rules by public entities.
It began a few years back when the city of Santa Cruz banned sleeping. OK, let’s be honest, you may still sleep legally in your bed. The city made it illegal to sleep in public. It’s true that the homeless are a plague here. Many are in a near-constant state of NDUI (not driving under the influence). Many are poor lost souls who are a danger to themselves and occasionally to others. Thus, three or four years ago, a local shopkeeper walking to work was knifed to death in broad daylight. Her killer had spent the previous 48 hours in a shelter muttering about and to his Bible. No one reported him,of course because he had not done anything illegal until then. Next!
The ban on sleeping made me acutely uncomfortable at the time. First, it was plainly inhumane. Second, if you prevent human being from doing what their human nature demands, they will find another way to do it. So, informal camps proliferate in the wooded areas juxtaposing the town. Here, in Central California, we are in a period of prolonged drought. Do we need unattended campfires and campfires attended by people who don’t play with a full deck?
A petty use of power, municipal power, applied in a search for orderliness led to greater and far more dangerous disorder.
I don’t even know if there are enough night shelters for everyone who wants one. I know that there will always be sane but houseless people who don’t want to be in a shelter, by choice. A sizable part of me respects their choice. You may not force people in places where they don’t want to be without due process. The Constitution is completely clear on this. And, I am not in favor of more shelters anyway because I believe they attract the economically feeble to Santa Cruz thus aggravating the problem.
You don’t have to be a “soft” to want the Constitution respected.
Now, since then, there as been a multiplication of city rules. This happens while the crime rate plunges. The fewer crimes the more rules. The crime rate is tanking all over the country; Santa Cruz city rules can hardly take the credit. What am I to think?
Here is a quiz: The Santa Cruz City Council is dominated by:
c Leftists to the left of the Democratic Party
Not far is the independent harbor. I used to admire the Santa Cruz (Small Yacht) Harbor. It was the only government and quasi-government organization I knew that stayed clear of reliance on taxes. Harbor users -in their many guises- supported the maintenance of the harbor. They included boat slip renters like me, of course, but also beach goers whose coffee paid for the rent the coffee shop paid to the harbor in return for an excellent commercial location. Harbor users also included patrons of the good restaurant that dominates the harbor entrance with its million dollar view. The restaurant goers gladly paid solid parking fees, of course, and a portion is remitted to the harbor.
I also liked the way the harbor administration put to work underused resources such as the large general parking lot reserved for boat owners that tends to stand more than half empty after four pm. The harbor had an agreement with the self- same restaurant to hold musical barbecues once a summer week evening on the beach it, the harbor, administers. The restaurant got its profits from the sale of barbecued food and the harbor pocketed full parking fees from those not holding slip stickers. The arrangement drew crowds. It was all a little bit untidy but not much. Twice, on such a barbecue evening, I leaned spontaneously out of my truck to congratulate the officer directing parking and to assure him, unsolicited, that this particular slip owner, me, was not (NOT) inconvenienced at all.
And then, someone retired and there was a new sheriff in town. Under the new harbormaster, several things that were allowed became forbidden overnight. The harbor hired a full-time parking enforcer, like the town next door. Suddenly, the one harbor employee the average harbor user interacted with was the parking enforcement officer. This necessarily hostile and heartless functionary supplanted the traditional harbor officers who save boats, and sometimes lives, every weekend. The mood changed and not for the better. I am not speaking for bitterness about parking fines here; with my slip rental goes a permanent parking sticker permit.
Maintaining a stricter order often requires stricter rules that make most people unhappy. Eve if it’s only a little bit unhappy, the bad feeling accumulates.
Then, stand-up surfboards had to be segregated from boats. Boats are limited to 5 m/h inside the harbor anyway. Some boats under sail inside the harbor regularly exceed the speed limit. Those are steered by aces. How bad can a collision be under these conditions, really? Has there been a single collision involving a standup board? Did a boat owner complain about stand-up boards being in the way? Maybe. Did ten complain? I doubt it. (I have not asked; I don’t trust I would get a valid answer I could cite.) My point is that one can always find a complainer or two. If you handed out free ice cream to poor children and cleaned carefully afterward, there would be some curmudgeons to object. I am sure there are boat-owning slip renters who complain even about the ocean swells. But everyone knows that good harbors are bustling with activity. Those who detest the corresponding moderate disorderliness have no business in a harbor at all. They should be reminded of the fact that there is a long waiting list for their slips instead of listened to.
The art of civilized administration requires that complaints be ignored up to a point. It also includes remembering the second most important American maxim: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it until it is.”
Then, there are the new signs that shout at you that fishing from docks is “prohibited.” For as long as I remember, 20 year-plus, children fished from the docks. It was an excellent, healthy, commendable form of leisure for kids, including poor kids, if you ask me. Were there ever any accident as a result, even one? I don’t think so. The signs affirm further and vengefully that the prohibition is: “strictly enforced.” No joking with serious matters here! We are not kidding. Don’t even think of enjoying yourselves!
The posted “minimum” fine is $174. Think about it: Your otherwise well-behaved 12-year old gives you the slip to try to catch a sardine or two. He gets caught. You are into it for about twenty hours of minimum wage. This comes close to a violation of the Eighth Amendment, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, I think. There may also be here a subtle breach of contract involved here. When I first rented a slip in the harbor, fishing from the docks was common practice. The locked dock that was part of the rental gave me special access to a pleasant fishing spot. Then, after twenty years, the contract becomes unilaterally modified to my detriment. The harbor did not bother to re-negotiate the contract.
I agree that this is a very small kind of tyranny but it’s tyranny all the same. The habit of being oppressed nearly always begins small in democratic countries. Our tiny liberties are eroded slowly until we don’t even remember we ever had them.
In the same period, I have heard the crew of one of the few remaining commercial fishing boats left in the harbor complain that they are made to feel unwelcome. I have no proof that their allegation is correct but, I wonder, why would they make it up? It jibes with the other forms of turning of the screw I mention. There is no doubt that the harbor would be neater without fishing boats. Fish smells and the rushed commercial fishermen drop the occasional dead fish into the harbor water. And, well, it’s a yacht harbor, after all. And, by the way, if slips only went to middle-aged nuns who work as librarians, the harbor would be even neater.
Occasionally, I take my grand-daughter to buy live crabs directly from a boat. It’s an expedition for her. It’s unforgettable. It shows her that some food does not come from the supermarket. But who am I to lay claim to such privilege? And who the hell are the commercial fishermen to insist on making a living from a harbor originally created by the Army Corps of Engineers with tax money?
On 2/3/14, coming out of a restaurant, my family and I were treated to a wonderful geyser-like spout of water reaching much higher than a three storied building. No, it was not a whale; the scene was a couple of miles inland, on a busy commercial artery, at a street intersection. We watched in utter fascination for more than fifteen minutes. (I posted a still picture of the event on my Facebook. Look for it.) I am obviously no expert, but I believe that while I looked on several hundreds of thousands of toilet flush- equivalents of city water were lost forever. I know, I know, accidents happen; no system is perfect. But why did it take so long to cap the leak? There is a fire station five or six blocks away.
I almost forgot to tell you: At the very same time, the same evening, there was an important meeting of the Santa Cruz Water Commission to make recommendations about water rationing to the City Council in view of the current drought.
Would I make this up? Would I dare? Do I have the talent?
In my immediate surroundings, the only rule or law I have seen abolished in the past twenty years or so concerns dogs. They used to be prohibited on the main commercial drag of Santa Cruz, Pacific Avenue. The prohibition has been rescinded. Dog owners are numerous and determined. Their victory renews my faith a little in democracy. I wish I could cite more examples though.
Sometimes, the ugly thought crosses my mind that public entities are increasingly run for the benefit of their nominal employees. Karl Marx was almost right about classes, maybe . (See, on this topic: “Karl Marx Was Right (Pretty Much)“)
More on local government action: “Coyotes: How Government Bureaucrats Think“