FREEDOM TO DO WHAT?

People often complain about how government is steadily encroaching into our freedom by passing new laws and regulations. I have heard this complaint countless times over my career, and I occasionally encourage people to look at what laws prohibited in the past before being too critical about where government intrudes today.

Public Information Officer Marilyn Smith recently shared an ordinance she came across while doing some research into the history of Albany’s taxi regulations. Ordinance No. 1496, as amended in July 1948, is entitled, “An Ordinance Defining and Punishing Offenses Against the Public Peace, Safety, Morals and General Welfare.” Before going into specifics, it should be made clear that this ordinance allowed the police to arrest people for just about any reason they wanted. Section 2, for example, stated:

It shall be unlawful for any person to be guilty of any violent, riotous, or disorderly conduct, or of any obscene, immoral, indecent, lewd, or licentious act, or to use any profane or obscene language in any public place.

If this standard were in place today, I’m confident we could arrest a significant percentage of the population. Many of those who might not be in violation of Section 2, we could probably nab under Section 15, which prohibits disorderly houses:

It shall be unlawful for any person to set up, operate, or maintain, or to aid, abet, or assist in the setting up, operating, or maintaining of any disorderly house.

Disorderly apparently focused on prostitution but also dealt with fornication, lewdness, or other immoral practices including the use of drugs. I don’t even want to think about how cases were made against these practices in local homes or, worse yet, how Section 22’s prohibition against “lascivious cohabitation” was enforced. Just in case you couldn’t be thrown in the can for lascivious living, Section 23 could get you for “immoral acts.”

It shall be unlawful for any person to commit willfully and wrongfully any act which grossly injures the person or property of another, or which grossly defiles the peace or the public health, or which grossly outrages public decency and is injurious to public morals.

I think I could be regularly outraged by the behavior of fellow citizens, particularly those who engage in the practice of “mashing” which is outlawed in Section 25. Mashing only applies to males who, “accost insolently or without cause any female or to seek impertinently to attract or gain the attention of any such female or to ogle vulgarly, make improper advances or indecent remarks…”(emphasis mine). Good thing the President wasn’t in town in 1948.

Ordinance No. 1496 includes 11 pages of stuff people shouldn’t be doing in town, including using a bean shooter, so I won’t try to cover the whole range of prohibitions. Other ordinances of the time dealt with things like making sure no one under age 18 was allowed outdoors after 10:30 p.m. and that transporting of “swill” was confined to certain times of day. The good old days may have been great, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking they allowed more freedom than we have today.

BEGINNING MY EDUCATION

Ending my career in city management signals the beginning of my education as an old human. I suppose it’s not really the beginning, but rather the start of the substance of the remaining curriculum –something like a graduate degree in human relations. My primary teachers will be my grandchildren, who now number 17 and will soon increase to 18 in August. I know my wife has also been working on her lesson plans for whatever time I have left.

I have two step-grandchildren who I don’t know very well, and they may not have much interest in their newly acquired relative. They seem like nice young people, though; and I hope they can give me some guidance about relating to my younger, teenage grandchildren. I have blotted out memories of my own children’s teenage years, and I would like my new experiences to involve less pain. As much as I love my grandchildren, I am occasionally reminded that they are little humans with the same failings we all share. Still, I’m looking forward to some good backpacking trips and other adventures during the summer months.

More time to hang out with young people also means more time to hang out with old people. I made a decision not long ago that I wouldn’t make any commitments for the first six months of retirement, in an effort to just relax and enjoy the reduction in responsibilities. Not long after that decision, I received a call from a Canadian cousin asking me to attend her birthday celebration on – you guessed it – the first official day of my retirement. Canada seems like such an attractive place these days that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to scope it out and reestablish connections. Within a few days of the Canadian call, my wife informed me we would be taking my mother-in-law on a cruise in the Mediterranean in October. My last cruise was courtesy of the U.S. Navy in 1974, and I have never had much of a desire to repeat the experience. Cruise ships do not appeal to me, but going on the trip will give me a chance to complain about it for years to come. This trip also involves a reading list that I’ve been told I have to complete over the next few months.

All of this sounds like I will be living a life of leisure in retirement. After paying for the two planned trips, I might be found at the local Walmart greeting customers. Proposed cuts to U.S. foreign assistance programs and the deconstruction of the State Department may end my career in international development. Most of what I have done in developing countries has been as a volunteer, and I’m sure I will continue to do that as the opportunity arises.

I will try to avoid writing any more about my retirement in my remaining eight columns and focus on important things like the new city budget, the transition to a new manager, city challenges, and new opportunities. Many good things are happening in the City right now, and there is no shortage of inspiring events and people to highlight.

ACRYLONITRILE (or What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You)

Daily, we see stories about the problems regulators cause business and development across the country or we hear about how regulators failed in places like Flint, Michigan. The new administration has proposed cutting the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 25 percent in an effort to reduce the regulatory burden created by at least one agency. I am sure other regulatory agencies will be affected as well.

I confess to muttering bad words under my breath about more than one federal or state agency myself on occasion, but I recently recalled an issue that occurred here in Albany, Oregon, a few years ago that gives me cause to be concerned about our current course.

Most of us have never heard of Acrylonitrile, “…a colorless volatile liquid that is an important monomer for the manufacture of useful plastics such as polyacrylontrile. It is reactive and toxic at low doses.” I certainly wasn’t aware that a local manufacturer was using this substance a few years ago, and I doubt that many others who lived near the plant were either. We rely on businesses to handle any dangerous chemicals responsibly, and they usually do. But what happens when a business with a large store of extremely dangerous material that requires careful management goes bankrupt? In Albany’s case, our Fire Department wrote a check to replenish the nitrogen blanket needed to control the material and then called the EPA to see if they could help. The agency immediately recognized the threat to public health and dispatched a team to Albany to conduct the needed cleanup. The federal officials worked collaboratively with our Fire Department, and the great majority of local residents never realized that a potential disaster was averted.

Every day, we rely on people we disparage as bureaucrats and regulators to ensure our health and safety. We regularly see and complain about their failings when something goes wrong, but I wonder if we appreciate the benefits of living in a place where things usually are done right. It takes little imagination to realize that if manufacturing plants in Albany, Oregon, occasionally have problems handling materials that can produce a catastrophe, then there must be many other places across the country where the same potential exists.

Maybe there won’t be any more incidents in the future like the one that occurred here in the past, and maybe adding a little more risk to our lives is worth whatever savings we might see on our tax bills. Perhaps businesses that use life-threatening compounds will never go bankrupt again or railroads transporting toxic substances will never have wrecks. I know I am grateful for the people who cleaned up the last mess we inherited in Albany and who work every day to help prevent similar threats in the future. I hope they will still be around when we need them in the years ahead.