Living In Fleecetown

Pagedale, Missouri is a suburb of St. Louis that covers about one square mile of area and has a population of 3,300 people. With a territory and population that small, how can a municipality generate sufficient revenue to provide city services?  According to a consent decree entered in federal court, Pagedale’s evident solution to the revenue problem was to fleece its own residents through a system of citations for claimed “nuisances” or code violations.

555fd681c467f-imageTo people other than the residents of Pagedale, the kinds of violations that were the subject of citations seem pretty comical.  According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there were prohibitions against sagging pants, walking on the left side of a crosswalk, walking in a roadway if a sidewalk is nearby, or barbecuing in your front yard (unless it’s a national holiday), as well as bans on dish antennas, basketball hoops, volleyball nets, swimming or wading pools or other recreational equipment in the front of a house.  Having mismatched curtains or a hole in a window screen also could be cited for code violations and produce fines.

But for the residents of Pagedale, it was no laughing matter.  In 2014, Pagedale handed out 2,555 citations for such offenses — a 500 percent increase from 2010.  In some years, proceeds from the fines assessed for the violations generated a quarter of the city budget.  And in the meantime, residents were saddled with debt trying to keep up with the citations and fines.

Why did Pagedale resort to fleecing its own residents?  According to the Post-Dispatch, what happened “was that Pagedale, along with some other municipalities, began raising money from non-traffic cases because of a Missouri law that caps the amount of revenue municipalities can collect from traffic fines.”  In short, towns that used to be speed traps looked inward and decided poor residents would have to make up the revenue shortfall.

What does it tell you about “public servants” that, rather than cutting municipal budgets or developing legitimate alternative sources of revenue, they would prey on the people they are supposed to be serving?  It tells you that, in some places at least, the concept of government has become perverted, and municipal employees are more interested in preserving their own jobs and paydays than in furthering the public good.

The Post-Dispatch gets it right when it says:  “Municipalities that cannot deliver services without preying on citizens should be dissolved.”   That seems like a rule that is so basic that it doesn’t need to be expressed — but evidently not.  Have we really reached the point where we need to set rules against predatory practices by local governments against their own citizens?

A Sure Sign That People Shouldn’t Have Kids

I think most families know their children better than anyone else and honestly try to make thoughtful decisions about what is best for the kids.  Sometimes, though, the decision they reach is so off-kilter that you can only conclude that they really should never have had children in the first place.  This story from Missouri falls into that category.

It involves a fairly common parenting issue:  the innocent child who needs to understand that he must be wary of strangers.  How do you teach that lesson in a way that sticks?  Have a serious talk where you explain the dangers and make the child promise not to go with strangers?  Show the child a missing kid on a milk carton and talk about kidnapping?  Watch a movie like Pinocchio that shows the potential consequences and thus powerfully reinforces the lesson that children cannot safely trust strangers?  Go to a presentation by a real police officer who explains to kids in the audience that they need to be on guard on the public streets?

Nah!  The Missouri family decided the best way to educate a trusting little boy was to stage his actual kidnapping.  According to news reports, his aunt enlisted a co-worker who lured the child into a car, threatened him with a gun, covered his head with a jacket, bound his hands and feet, told him he would never see his family again, and took him to a basement where the aunt took off the boy’s pants and told him he could be sold into “sex slavery.”  The poor kid’s mother and grandmother also were charged in the incident.

It’s hard to believe that any one person would think that was an appropriate course, much less a group of them — but these folks felt they did nothing wrong.  I hate to see families broken up, but this little boy clearly would be better off in a different living arrangement.  God knows how these jokers would have taught him about the birds and the bees.

We Are Not Sheep To Be Herded

Fortunately, things seemed to calm down last night in Ferguson, Missouri, where people have been protesting the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager Saturday night.  A change in police tactics — which basically avoided the shows of overwhelming force police had exhibited on prior nights — seems to have eased tensions.

The Ferguson situation raises serious questions about the “militarization” of police forces and their responses to protests.  That issue, in turn, raises bigger questions about police accountability and whether officers have an unnecessarily confrontational “us vs. them” attitude that promotes clashes with a citizenry that is simply trying to exercise its constitutional right to assemble and protest.

ABC News image of police in FergusonThe weaponry police displayed in Ferguson — armored vehicles, army-style helmets and uniforms and tactical equipment, even sharpshooters — was astonishing.  (Why the need for sharpshooters in these circumstances?  Who were they targeting?)  It’s legitimate to ask why municipal police need such equipment in the first place, and politicians from across the political spectrum are doing so.  Separate and apart from the cost of purchasing and maintaining such equipment in times when many cities are strapped for cash, the reality is that once such equipment is acquired the impulse to deploy it will become irresistible.  In Ferguson, it seems pretty clear that the use of the military equipment, tear gas, and rubber bullets unnecessarily fanned the flames.

Police have a tough job, and the vast majority of Americans understand and support them as they perform it.  The police role, however, is a limited one — to enforce laws and apprehend criminals.  When a protest occurs, police of course may properly arrest anyone who throws a brick through a window or who assaults a police officer.  But police are public servants, and when there is a question about whether police have overstepped their authority by engaging in improper use of lethal force, as in this case, citizens have every right to question, and protest, and take photographs of police as they perform their jobs.  When police are arresting journalists in a McDonald’s, tear-gassing news crews, and firing rubber bullets randomly to try to disperse crowds, as happened in Ferguson, it’s fair to conclude that police have overstepped their role

We are not sheep to be herded, and police officials need to understand that.  Law enforcement authorities must respect the fact that Americans have the right to protest and question police activities.  I’m hoping that the Ferguson situation causes municipal authorities across the country to reassess their need for military equipment and their tactics when protests occur.

Back, Safe And Sound

Yesterday we drove from Columbia, Missouri to Columbus, Ohio.  It’s a straight shot on I-70, and it was one of those journeys that offer the best and worst that the American interstate highway system has to offer.

At first we rolled through the Missouri and Illinois countryside on a sunny Sunday morning.  We racked up the miles and made good time on good roads, listening to the radio and marveling at the freedom of a fun weekend road trip.

DSC04124Then, as traffic picked up, we encountered the road rage crew — hyper-aggressive drivers who can’t stand to wait in the passing lane with everyone else.  If you drive, you know the type.  You first notice them in the rear-view mirror, darting back and forth through the traffic as they come barreling up.  Then they are upon you, passing cars on the right, stupidly flirting with a semi or two, squeezing into a too-small space in the passing lane left by a driver who still adheres to the quaint notion of maintaining an assured clear distance, and leaving the brake lights of law-abiding motorists flashing in their wake.  If they have to wait to pass, they show their impatience by swinging out to the left of the passing lane to see what is keeping them from driving 90.  I always feel safer when the ragers pass by without incident.

At the Indiana-Ohio border we caught up with the western edge of a slow-moving storm.  On a desolate stretch of road, traffic just stopped for no apparent reason.  We were out in the middle of nowhere in the blackness, the rain pelting down and the traffic inching forward, not knowing whether we were dealing with an accident or a road closure.  It was raining so hard that even putting the windshield wipers on rapid speed provided little visibility relief.  There was nothing to do but grit your teeth, stay alert to the traffic flow, and plow through the storm.  After traffic finally picked up again about 20 miles and an hour or so later, we had to deal with interstate truckers driving faster than conditions warranted to make up for lost time and coating our car with road water in the process.

The day ended with a drive down an unlighted country road in the downpour on our way to pick up Penny and Kasey from the kennel.  When we finally pulled into our garage, our dry and snug little house never looked so good.

Sunset On The Missouri, Cooper’s Landing, October 5

IMG_5057Richard discovered a quirky place called Cooper’s Landing on the banks of the broad Missouri River.  We paid a visit there last night and found a group of good-hearted people gathering to listen to music, build crackling campfires, and enjoy life.  They’ve got a nice view, too.

Here’s To “Thees” And “Thous”

IMG_5040We’re here in Columbia, Missouri for a quick weekend visit with Richard.  This morning we were walking around the beautiful campus of the University of Missouri and came across this neat little fountain with the Missouri Tiger and an inscription of the Missouri alma mater.  Written in 1895, it’s a classic of the genre, complete with references to “man and maiden” and drinking a toast while voices are raised in song:

Old Missouri, fair Missouri, Dear old varsity.
Ours are hearts that fondly love thee, Here’s a health to thee.

Proud art thou in classic beauty Of thy noble past
With thy watch words honour, duty, Thy high fame shall last!

Every student, man and maiden, Swells the glad refrain.
‘Till the breezes, music laden, Waft it back again.

Proud art thou in classic beauty Of thy noble past
With thy watch words honour, duty, Thy high fame shall last!

I’m partial to Carmen Ohio, of course, but any alma mater with so many “thees” and “thous” is pretty strong.

Because It’s All About Him

Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s bizarre comments about rape a few days ago showed him to be ignorant.  His refusal to withdraw from the race despite being urged to do so by virtually every fellow Republican, from presidential candidate Mitt Romney on down, shows him to be an egotistical fool — in short, a hack politician.

Akin not only isn’t withdrawing, his campaign website seeks to raise $24,000 in 24 hours to “help Todd fight back against the party bosses.”   Huh?  This guy thinks he’s being unfairly railroaded by GOP leaders, as opposed to being asked to do the honorable thing and quit, so that the Missouri Senate campaign, or even the national campaign, won’t be sidetracked by continuing discussion of his idiotic comments?  (And who would possibly make a contribution in response to such an absurd appeal?)

Akin’s antics just reaffirm why so many of us instinctively despise and distrust career politicians.  We know that they will say and do just about anything to get elected, and the normal human reactions that spur many of our actions — reactions like shame, and embarrassment, for making absurd statements — don’t seem to affect them.  Like so many other politicians of both parties, Akin professes to stand for certain positions on the issues and depicts himself as a selfless public servant who just wanted to represent the people — but when those politicians say (or do) something so stupid that the only decent response is to withdraw or resign, the facade of public service is ripped away and the ugly, overwhelming narcissism and selfishness is exposed for all to see.

Todd Akin obviously could care less about his party, his positions on the issues, or his ability to be an effective legislator.  Instead, he cares only about himself.  If he doesn’t recognize reality and quit, I hope Missouri voters give him an historic drubbing come November.

Mo’ Mizzou

The Missouri campus is a pretty place, in large part because — in the areas we’ve walked through, at least — they’ve avoided throwing up the ugly, uninspired, Bauhaus-style abominations of the ’60s and ’70s that mar so many college campuses.  In their place are classic college buildings that are designed to appeal to parents interested in scholarship and academic achievement.  For the students, however, the appeal may lie more in the bars, bistros, and coffee shops that surround the campus.

On To The Show-Me State

We’re in Columbia, Missouri, moving Richard into his new place and getting it ready for the coming year.  After the drive from Chicago and some unloading, we had some sushi, walked around downtown, and then took a quick stroll through campus.

The central quad of the UM campus is a beautiful place, dominated by six enormous, somewhat scarred pillars.  They are all that remains of one of the first buildings on campus, which was destroyed by fire long, long ago.  The columns give the grassy area a wistful, Romanesque — and very distinctive — feel.

The Voters Begin To Speak On “Health Care Reform”

Tuesday’s election in Missouri included a ballot initiative where voters were asked to weigh in on whether a key provision of the “health care reform” legislation — the “individual mandate” that requires people to either get health insurance or pay a penalty — should be invalidated.  More than 71 percent of the Missouri voters voted yes on that issue.

I’m sure supporters of health care reform have lots of rationalizations for the landslide in Missouri — it was a special election, Republicans were more motivated to go to the polls, serious people understand that ballot issues aren’t going to decide the matter and therefore we shouldn’t pay attention to the results, etc. — but I think the Missouri election result has to be viewed as having some significance.

The reality is that, when voters were asked to pull the lever on a key feature of the “health care reform” legislation, they rejected it overwhelmingly.  Commentators can pooh-pooh the results if they wish, but does anyone doubt that if Missouri voters had overwhelmingly approved of the individual mandate that result would have been cited as evidence that popular perception of the legislation was changing?

I don’t know whether an up or down vote on one part of a complex bill can tell us much about how voters will treat members of Congress when they stand for re-election in November.  Most voters aren’t single issue voters; they typically consider an incumbent’s overall record.  Still, if I were a Democrat who had voted in favor of the “health care reform” legislation and its individual mandate centerpiece, the Missouri results would leave me feeling queasy.

Keep The Big Ten As It Is (Cont.)

Long-time Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Bill Livingston says he has reason to believe that the Big Ten conference is considering the University of Connecticut as a possible expansion candidate and argues in favor of that approach.  Alternatively, he supports a “raid the Big 12” scheme that would add Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska to the Big Ten.

I don’t know who Livingston’s sources are, but adding UConn to the conference doesn’t do much for me, separate and apart from my general opposition to any expansion.  Their football team is not very good, and their football facilities don’t really compare to those in the Big Ten.  (The Huskies play in Rentschler Field, which seats only 40,000.)   Although I think Jim Calhoun is a fine basketball coach, I’m not sure basketball really should factor much into the equation.  We can be pretty confident that money is the big driver, and it isn’t clear to me what kind of TV markets or TV revenues Connecticut would bring.  Do significant numbers of people in New York City and Boston really follow Connecticut football?  Maybe so, but I’m skeptical.

Keep The Big Ten As It Is (Cont.)

Keep The Big Ten As It Is (Cont.)

Keep The Big Ten As It Is (Cont.)

Keep The Big Ten As It Is