Sunday, February 28, 2010

Another Sunday Ramble

As I write, it is beginning to rain after a beautiful February full moon Saturday. I know it is virtually illegal to cuss rain in West Texas, but working construction, I'm on the verge of it. I suspect the folk tearing down the Carnival tonight would share my opinion, just cold enough to be miserable work in the wet. BTW, did I read it wrong or did a Grand Champion goat get a better bid than "Rock Star" the Grand Champion Steer? I know which I'd rather have in my freezer.

I have not seen much of the Olympics, but I took time to watch the hockey finals. Worth it on several levels. The IOC couldn't have scripted a better match-up, underdog USA v Canada, ratings must have been through the roof. Great game, surpisingly few penalty minutes, overtime game, Canada won, and good sportsmanship post-game by both teams. Perhaps next Winter Olympics the IOC will choose a location where they don't have to truck in snow.

I won't trouble City Council this Tuesday, I will be busy at the primary elections, been in the election-judging business for a long time. I do read Council Agenda. Conspicuous in its absence is an agenda item Accepting the Smoke-Free San Angelo petition. I was at last meeting, Council and City staff were assuming this pro-forma bit of business would be done March 2. I have to assume the item was pulled at request of the initiating committee, I also have to wonder why.

Two Agenda items that are there: #19 would give Council members access to the City's insurance plan as a Charter Amendment, subject to voter approval. There is a rather tangled history here. I was on Charter Review Committee a bit over two years ago, Prop 5 would have modestly increased Council pay, but it failed, by a small margin. Only then did it occur to City Legal staff that an obscure provision of state statute made it illegal for us to give Council members the same health insurance all other employees get, something they had received since the memory of man runneth not. I hope we can correct that error, if it takes another Charter Election, so be it. The vote will be on a regular election date, not much extra expense to City.

Since there is a two year period between Charter elections, if we are to have one, let's cover any other Charter items while we are at it. One that comes to mind would be amending Sec 47 on Initiative and Referendum to comply with case law we recently had pointed out to us so as to avoid future confusion.

I also look forward to #18, Work Session Criteria for Council and Boards. San Angelo has over 20 Boards and commissions, a good thing. These bodies range from Animal Services to Zoning, and give the average citizen a means to be heard. Over time they have grown without much oversight. All of these are volunteer appointees, and they are to be commended for their service. Still, City ought to look in on what they are doing every couple of years, just to stay in touch.

Some Boards are doing a great job, some are not doing much at all. Most of them could improve their accessibility by brushing up the website provided by the City. A list of who is on a board would be a good start, a clear statement of long-term goals wouldn't hurt. Most of these boards could benefit by regularly looking back and re-focusing on the original mission of the Board and how well they are doing in that mission.

No one wants to make it hard on Board volunteers. A once every two year joint session with Council would help both bodies understand one another, and what is expected and what has been done. There are a lot of details to be worked out, but that is what agenda item 18 hopes to start doing.

Remember to vote Tuesday, if you're really interested, don't forget the precinct convention at 7:15 after the polls close. If you don't vote, a five dollar fine for whining about the results. Voting, win or lose is your license to bitch about it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tell the Government

I was reading some of the anti-smoking stories from around the state and I kept coming across the same theme. It is captured in this quote I found in the Standard Times: "They can't say that the government is telling them what to do because they are telling them what to do, the voters themselves, its by the people. The people are the ones that are going to say whether it goes smoke free. Its the voters of San Angelo," by Carol Kahutek of Smoke Free San Angelo. This is a total misrepresentation of this petition and the governments roll here.

To begin with, this initiative is a request from a small committee for the local government to regulate smoking city wide. The signed petitions are the procedure needed to put the measure on the ballot of an election so the city government can get voter reaction. If a majority of those voters favor the petition, the government will turn the proposal into an ordinance and assume the authority and responsibility for this new law, just like they do with every other ordinance on the books. They will use the new law to tell people what to do.

At every step in this process, the government has been at the center. This is not the government not telling us what to do. This is one small group of people trying to convince a majority of voters to force the government to impose their will on another group of people. This is all about trying to force the government to tell an unpopular minority what to do.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lotta "Smoke" over Smoking Proposal (Updated)

There has been, and continues to be, considerable confusion over the process and fate of the "No Smoking" petition. One thing is certain, it will not be on the May 8 ballot as supporters had hoped for. Another is nearly certain; the petition itself is not "dead", just delayed until the November election. Despite some confusion over controlling legal language, petitioners had sufficient case law to override black-letter Charter and State Statute language: the signatures were legally validated and sufficient in number.

The "Special agenda" raised some Council hackles. It was legal, but it was also "irregular". No one I spoke to recalls the last special agenda. More importantly, as City Manager Dominguez explained today, with the procedural steps involved, it was simply too late, even had Council taken delivery of petition today, to get it on the May ballot.

A nit-picky procedural point, but of importance; success of the petition does NOT mean voters will ever see the issue. Under Charter rules (so far unchallenged) there are two other possible outcomes. After acceptance of the petition, publication in the newspaper, and a regular agenda hearing for public comment, Council can look at the whole 12 page proposal, agree with it, approve it as submitted, then it is law.

Council can also offer amendments, after which the referring committee (NOT the 4421 signers, just the 5 committee members) can agree to the amended version, Council approves, then it is law. No frisky, unpredictable voters involved in either scenario. If any media outlet in town has mentioned this point, I missed it.

I would like to "clear the air", metaphorically on a point many people seem to be confused on. The use of the term "public place" is defined in petition, but few people appear to have read the 12 pages of proposal. Some have mentioned "not wanting to be subjected to smoke while waiting to renew my license", or buying groceries, or going to the Mall, at the movies, one even included going to church! I want to know about this church which allows smoking in the pews, I may start attending!

Point is, I don't know if they are going by old memories or just don't get out much, but all these places already prohibit smoking. No gov't office allows smoking. Most of these bans have been in place for 10-20 years. I won't claim numbers, but a "doorway" survey, looks like about half of restaurants are completely smoke-free, and that number is growing by the owners' free choice. While most bars still allow smoking, we have at least three that are smoke-free, and seem to be thriving. That success may encourage more bars to follow suit, depending on the owners' judgement of what the customers want.

I could see supporting some form of this law if there were an actual problem avoiding second-hand smoke. Truth is, a body can live a long and full life in San Angelo without ever entering an establishment which allows smoking.

The parts of this proposal I object are: it unneccessarily overrides the right of a PRIVATE business owner; it fails to make the public health case, as the smoke is easily avoided; and if one reads all of it, it imposes uncalled for burdens even on businesses which already prohibit smoking.

It doesn't take 12 pages to say "no smoking". The proposed ordinance requires new record keeping and continuing education by Board of Health, all places would have to post "no smoking" signs and remove all ashtrays. Better pull that "paraphenalia" off the shelves, Wal-Mart! The Colonels Pipe Shop can just close, he's not allowed to "share a common wall", nor is he allowed to move! Sports venues; can't smoke in the "seating area", but presumably the coach and players can indulge on the field. Forget that they petition a "San Angelo City Commission" which doesn't exist, hasn't since at least 1917. My guess, this will take a bit of amending.

This has not been defeated or undone. Petitioners' errors and the set-back to Nov. will allow for a clearer understanding of the details, amendment, perhaps reasonable exceptions, possibly defeat at the polls. To be sure, everyone has time to step back, take a deep breath, maybe even look at the particulars.

P.S. Link to proposed ordinance on Standard Times or on ConchoInfo. City charter and code of ordinances can be found here and chapter 47 on I&R here.

Monday, February 15, 2010


I read a column by Bonnie Erbe today on the school lunch program that really got me thinking. I wasn't surprised by her support of steps by the federal government to dictate the contents of school meals. It was pretty much what I expected. What got me thinking was her claim to be a government minimalist.

She said "I am a government minimalist in the sense that I believe government should do only that which individuals cannot do for themselves." I had to stop and think about this. How many things do you and I do on a daily basis that we can't do as an individual. Most of these things don't require government action or interference (although it is all too frequently there), and yet somehow they keep getting done. Maybe that's because over the generations humankind has been around, we have developed organizations and mechanisms such as families, teams, clubs, churches, companies, charities, associations, corporations, etc.. to do what an individual can't do alone. We have used the strategy of coming together in groups to solve most of the problems of life and civilization, little to no government required.

Far too many people today think that once a problem is too big for them to solve as an individual it's automatically a government problem. They forget what families, churches, clubs, charities and companies do on a daily basis. Governments show over and over again they are good at very few things. Governments exist for a very limited number of functions, and once they go beyond those functions they tend to make a royal mess of things and they always reduce freedoms. Let's stop using the Erbe definition of minimal government.