Lessons from Morocco

Marrakech, Morocco, is a place where you can charm snakes, ride camels, and work with local government officials to develop integrated solid waste management (SWM) plans; and I was fortunate to be able to do all three during a brief vacation last week.  The snake charming and camel riding were my idea, while the training program was sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

 I was contacted a few weeks ago by Laura Hagg, a colleague at the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) and asked if I would be interested in helping with some training that an EPA team planned to conduct in Marrakech.  A member of the team had some health issues, and a last-minute replacement was needed to assist with the project.  I have extensive experience as the volunteer of last resort; so I was willing, flattered, and pleased to be invited.

 Morocco was new territory for me, although I have worked in several Arab countries and have developed a deep affection for most of the people and much of the culture in this part of the world.  The streets and souks (markets) are vibrantly alive with people of all ages engaging in activities that tend to overwhelm me whenever I visit.  The picture below shows me seated next to a snake charmer I stumbled across in the Jmal Fnaa Square, located in the heart of Marrakech’s old city, or medina.  I really wasn’t involved in charming the snakes except for allowing a couple of harmless ones to be placed around my neck for picture taking.  The snakes’ owners believed I should contribute about $40 for this privilege, but I was able to get away with a $2 contribution and no snake bites.







The real purpose of my visit, of course, was to participate in a five-day training session where I was asked to facilitate four sessions on developing an integrated SWM plan.  I have never worked with a more engaged and thoughtful group of people than the 18 Moroccan officials who participated in the course.  I was also fortunate to be the least part of an experienced team that included Francesca DiCosmo, the international program manager for EPA’s Region 3; Jeff Burke, the executive director of the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable; and Camille Heaton, an environmental scientist with RTI International.  The experience reminded me how easy training can be when you are working with people who are eager to learn and enthusiastic about the subject.

 Most of my time was spent in the training program, but I was able to take several long walks through Marrakech’s souks; and I made of point of taking an hour-long camel ride in the desert on the northern edge of the city.  My camel was well-behaved, and I spent a fair amount of the ride trying to reassure the Canadian woman on the camel behind mine that she was not in any real danger.

I always find these trips refreshing because they renew my faith in people by reminding me that even when there are differences in language and cultural norms, we have more in common than we do issues that divide us.  At a time when Albany is facing a number of divisive challenges, it’s important to remember the need to get along.

Enforcing the Law

The City Charter requires that the City Manager “shall see that all ordinances are enforced…,” and there is really no qualification or limitation on that responsibility.  Anyone who has looked at the Municipal Code lately realizes that it contains more than 290 pages of rules and regulations, and that number does not include the City’s land development or building codes.  Every ordinance is subject to interpretation; and it is, therefore, nearly impossible to meet everyone’s expectations when enforcing it.

I have also found over the years that people have radically different views of the world.  Some people are strict constructionists who believe every law should be enforced to its letter (as they interpret the letter), while others believe ordinances should only be applied to people other than themselves.  I think the majority probably fall somewhere in between these extremes.

The most vexing ordinance the City attempts to enforce is our sign code.  The big, immobile signs are fairly easy to regulate; but the little, movable ones are a chronic problem.  New technology has also given us a new breed of sign that flashes and dances to divert our attention away from silly activities like paying attention to the driver ahead of us.  A number of our residents also seem to believe that placing a temporary sign in the street right-of-way is a constitutionally protected activity that no government should have the power to regulate.

We do allow temporary signs on private property, which raises the question of when is a sign permanent?  We do not have people driving around keeping a log of when a new “temporary” sign has been placed, so it’s difficult to prove someone is violating the ordinance without tangible evidence that the sign has been in place longer than the prescribed period.

I’m sure any police officer reading this column has little sympathy with my whining.  If telling someone to move or remove a sign causes heartburn, giving them a ticket or arresting them for something more serious is sure to provoke an unhappy reaction.  I think it is a tribute to our officers and the leadership of our Police Department that we receive as few complaints and lawsuits as we do.

Our City Attorney can be easily driven to an emotional outburst by telling him that a certain ordinance will only be enforced upon complaint.  He will loudly and rightly point out ordinances must be applied equally to everyone and enforcement should not be dependent on the presence or absence of a complaint.  I have been well instructed and no longer use these terms in discussions involving our attorney.

Like anyone who enforces laws, I do use discretion when considering what actions to take when I become aware of a violation.  Our range of responses includes warnings to citations to confiscation, although we rarely resort to the latter.  My goal is to use enforcement to meet the intent of our ordinances while doing the least to antagonize the citizens we serve.