Politics, Policies, Policing — Oh My!

Eugene takes a break from politics for six weeks every summer. Eugene City Council recesses from August until mid-September, giving everybody a chance to catch up on other things. After two full weeks of political conventions, we’ve earned that break this year.

Politics has a twin sibling that cannot take a break, or shouldn’t. Policies that spring from political decisions must continue. Politics instigate; policies implement. Here are a few assumptions embedded in our policies that may be worth reexamining.

1. Avoid policy cliffs

We should try to eliminate most of our “all or nothing” mental habits. Lane County could save millions if it closed half its refuse transfer stations. That makes sense on a spreadsheet, but not if you’re stuck with an old mattress and no truck to transport it.

If the spreadsheet people met the bed sheet people, each would see the other’s point of view, and accommodations could be made. The county closed its administrative offices every day for the lunch hour to save money and hurt nobody.

To close a transfer station tomorrow, reduce its hours of operation today. Citizens will tell you that they don’t want to change, but what they’re really asking for is time to adapt. With three years warning, most aging mattresses will be disposed before the commute to the dump lengthens.

Unions rules may need more flexibility to accommodate a broader range of solutions, removing other “all or nothing” obstacles.

2. Bind your future selves

Politicians need better tools for binding their voting bodies to solutions that stretch over longer periods of time. Words alone will not suffice. There are constitutional prohibitions against binding future office-holders, but they can be overcome.

Contracts cannot be broken or renegotiated, as our legislators have learned from the Public Employees Retirement System. Could contract attorneys be deployed to similarly bind the county to close one transfer station every year for a decade, whether they want to or not? It may require an outsourcing contract, but it’s worth a try.

Politicians lose credibility with the public when they trade future pain for present benefit, and then dodge that pain when it comes due. They cannot legally require future politicians to do what must be done, but they can make alternatives more painful than compliance.

As Eugene and Lane County contemplate legacy building projects, they might devise an annuity-style restricted fund, dedicated to paying utilities and maintenance costs over the buildings’ projected life spans. Structures that are well-maintained always last longer, but politicians who fund maintenance over sexy new initiatives may not. A dedicated funding source would protect those politicians from making popular-but-imprudent choices in the future.

3. Question Complaint-Based Enforcement

Policy has a close cousin that deserves attention. “Policing” is how our policies are enforced. Chicago made it a policy to reduce speeding near public parks, and now there are automated speed enforcement cameras installed on streets adjacent to parks across the city. Tickets mailed to vehicle owners could include the statistic of how many children regularly use the particular park they were speeding past.

Chicago hopes to achieve efficient policing through automation. We don’t use cameras for enforcement, and I hope we won’t — for reasons that will have to wait for another column. But what we do instead may be worse. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman once described our enforcement choices as between Big Brother and Little Sister.

More and more of our enforcement strategies rely on complaints — often anonymous complaints. We’ve all heard terrible tales of Germans and Russians spying on one another, building a culture of fear and retribution. It offers a seductive efficiency to government officials. Enforcing only the rules that citizens care about, they don’t bother enforcing many others. “If you see something, say something” encourages suspicion and tattling.

For example, sidewalk signs are not allowed in Eugene, but merchants use them all the time. When enforcement is initiated only by complaints, won’t unpopular (but perfectly legal) businesses be unfairly targeted? Doesn’t that strategy eventually condone “mob rule,” but by another name?

Policing, policies, politics — the swirl slows in August, but it never stops.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.