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May 26th
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Politician, Heal Thyself

tom_honig_sIsn’t it funny how elected officials are quick to regulate others but slow to regulate themselves?

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mark Stone wants to extend a ban on plastic bags by clamping down on paper bags at local grocery stores. Under his plan retailers would be forced to offer discounts to shoppers who bring in their own reusable shopping bags. Or, perhaps, they’d charge shoppers more to use what he calls “single-use bags.”

Perhaps his idea is a good one, although I’d love to hear from retailers to find out whether the plan would lead to higher prices. But a bigger issue is something more basic: if you want to make change, start with yourself.

Like: Stone should swear off the use of mailers and brochures during his next campaign. County supervisors should urge that county staff cut down on paperwork.   The County Planning Department uses form after form for applicants, and most county offices require a ton of paperwork on a daily basis.

Take a look at the Board of Supervisors’ weekly agenda packet. Sure, these forms and papers probably don’t add up to the number of paper bags at grocery stores, but Stone’s words would carry a lot more clout if he were to start with himself and the county government. Make do with less paper at the county.

Stone says that he wants to enlist the support of other jurisdictions in this paper-bag cutback. What an opportunity he has to enlist their participation in government paperwork as well.

How about a paper-free election next November? After all, when I go to the store I have a choice as to whether to use a paper bag or to bring my own cloth bag. But I don’t have any such choice when these same regulation-happy politicians litter my mailbox with their campaign fliers.

If local leaders want to be truly innovative, they should consider regulating themselves first. That would set them apart.

Take a look at Congress. One little-known perk that elected officials there enjoy is the right to insider trading. That’s right. The same strategy that landed Martha Stewart in jail is actually legal for Congressional members. Alan Ziobrowski, a business professor at Georgia State, analyzed hundreds of personal financial disclosures by members of Congress. The result? They beat the market, significantly. And no law prevents them from using their knowledge about upcoming legislation to buy and sell securities.

That’s not to say that such shenanigans are going on here, but it is worth noting that the special treatment enjoyed by elected officials is causing ever-increasing cynicism about the political process.

There’s a tremendous opportunity here. No one can argue against the goal of cutting down on the use of raw materials. But the regulators could gain a lot of support— and maybe even some raised eyebrows—if for once they started out by changing their own ways first.

Last Tuesday night didn’t seem different from any other Tuesday night in downtown Santa Cruz, although I did run into a few friends strolling downtown wearing “I (heart) Downtown Santa Cruz” buttons. It’s all part of a Take Back Santa Cruz movement that’s sprung up in the wake of recent violence—as well as a general feeling by some that downtown isn’t safe.

Here we go again. The downtown problem is hardly news. It has been an area of concern for the 38 years I’ve been here. Writer Page Stegner even went so far as to write about Pacific Avenue in an Esquire Magazine story back in 1981, under the title “The Limits of Tolerance.”

No one has the solution to various downtown problems; after all, there’s no law against sitting around and being unpleasant.

One thing I have learned: don’t ever write laws in response to news stories. Some of our society’s worst laws have resulted from tragic cases in the news: the kidnap and murder of Polly Klaas led to the unworkable “Three Strikes” law. A horrible case of violence led to various “Megan’s Law” measures that have proved to be more trouble than they’re worth.

The Take Back Santa Cruz movement—you can even find it on Facebook—is a worthy effort by the Downtown Association that makes more sense than any sort of legalistic crackdown.  Crackdowns don’t work. Back in the 1970s, the City Council decided to ban sitting on Pacific Avenue flower boxes—and one lunchtime the police fanned out to give citations. When one of the citations was issued to an assistant district attorney, the crackdown was abandoned.

The challenge is to dilute any problems by trying to attract normal folks to downtown. That’s a strategy worth pursuing.


Contact Tom Honig at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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