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  • Last modified 103 days ago (June 23, 2023)

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There ought to be a law about making laws

Laws. We curse them. We worship them. At times, they make no sense. Other times, they are the difference between livelihood and tragedy. Almost always, they are subject to interpretation, manipulation, even chicanery.

Take, for example, something as innocent and pleasant as this past weekend’s movie nights in Marion and Florence.

Under law, vendors at such events must pay sales tax and report all income. Organizers also must pay rights fees — often far from inconsequential — before playing music or showing movies.

That’s why, when you go to a restaurant where the wait staff comes out to sing “Happy Birthday,” you often hear an unfamiliar tune and lyrics. Otherwise, until recently, the restaurant would have owed royalties to the holder of the copyright on “Happy Birthday” — just as you technically should pay us anytime you repost one of our articles or photos, even from years ago, on social media.

We won’t begin to talk about hoops and loopholes vendors must jump through before legally selling beer and hard lemonade at such events. Sometimes, it feels as if bureaucrats and lawyers write rules merely to guarantee their employment.

It’s a bit like the mash-up of software that businesses such as ours have to rent at exorbitant monthly fees so we can comply with complicated withholding and sales tax rules and a maze of postal service regulations, including arcane ones about how certain newspapers need to be folded in certain ways so they can be processed by machines that the postal service doesn’t actually use.

At the same time, drop by what some derisively call the farmers’ welfare office on the east side of Marion. A jaunt through county wheat fields makes it clear that subsidies and yield guarantees from that office are all that will keep some farmers in business this year.

Will at least some of them get more than their share because they fudged last year’s yield by adding a few bushels gleaned from separate property they harvest for someone else? Do you suppose every charity actually gets all the money that taxpayers write off as donations for which they don’t have receipts?

Laws’ beauty or ugliness is in the eye of the beholder. Rules requiring lawns to be mowed and vehicles not to be parked on them seem to landowners as unfair infringements but to neighbors as necessary protections. Tension between those two may explain why people bidding to mow or tow charges more than expected. They don’t want to find themselves in a neighborhood equivalent of Ukraine.

Zoning is perhaps the single most misunderstood law. It’s supposed to provide a roadmap for development that will benefit all but often is seen as a roadblock to be worked around.

The county’s seemingly endless buying and building spree would have been greatly simplified if someone had created an actual plan — say, formation of a government office district as part of Marion’s zoning.

Instead of looking at a seemingly too-small lot clear across town that once was a service station and could require costly cleanup as occurred at the county’s transfer station, the county could have focused on land 50% larger that it already owns just south of the jail and that easily could be expanded by purchase or eminent domain.

Instead, what we hear is blitheful talk — likely to come back to bite — about how logistical difficulties of linking remote locations can be solved by such things as point-to-point WiFi transceivers — equipment that typically requires line-of-sight transmission.

Stand at the former food bank or Silk Salon locations that the county wants to link to its courthouse network and see whether you have line of sight to the courthouse. Will we be talking in a year or so about how projects at those locations unexpectedly require construction of radio towers?

Creation of a medium-density housing zone in Marion’s north valley also might have tempted developers to look there instead of to a smallish section of a farm field, originally donated for a theater project north of Marion’s ball fields, as the location for new rental homes.

On the donated land, they will require setback variants and huge infrastructure expenses. In the north valley, using existing infrastructure, they could have been seeds of renewal that would elevate property values.

Just because a charitable group owns and was willing to give away land that could be used for the projects doesn’t mean those are the best locations for them. These are the types of things we had hoped Marion’s costly strategic plan might have addressed instead of itemizing a litany of platitudes various people asked for.

Then there are rules that seem to exist mainly to be exploited. A grant request for 91 new radios — ostensibly for law enforcement, though the county and its cities have nowhere near that number of sworn officers — is blamed on an FBI rule requiring AES-256 instead of AES-128 encryption of certain elements of personal information provided in criminal records checks.

Ignore, for a minute, that dispatchers simply could be trained what information should and shouldn’t be announced publicly. The rule itself makes no sense. Computer experts say it would take 1 billion years to break AES-128 encryption by brute force. Is the extra billion years to crack AES-256 worth the cost?

Truth is, the county bought the wrong radios six years ago, and this new rule is mainly an excuse for replacing equipment based on technology that consumers tend to purchase anew every two or three years.

The grant request also mentions that radios won’t work in some areas and that new ones automatically will switch to old LTE cell phone frequencies instead. Fact is, where the radios don’t work, LTE typically isn’t available, either.

But it’s a grant request, and grant requests are known for overstating positions. The problem is, even with the grant, 10% of the cost would be borne by local taxpayers.

Are all these concerns valid? Maybe not. But they’re ideas — ideas that should come forward and be discussed, openly and publicly, unless government wants to be viewed as unresponsive, incompetent, corrupt, or all three.

That’s why we applaud the dozen and a half officials and citizens who showed up Monday night to learn about openness in government. If they practice what was preached, questions like the ones raised in this editorial can be viewed as positive signs of engagement rather than negative signs of suspicion.

Asking questions is every citizen’s responsibility. Seriously considering those questions and making sure answers are readily available is the most important duty of every public official.

Having open meetings and open records is the law — a law about making laws. Follow this law and other laws start falling in place.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified June 23, 2023

 

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