Getting the Government that we keep asking for

Essay by Martha Quillen

Salida politics – September 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Lately, phrases from the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities have been popping into my mind more readily than popular tunes from the top ten charts. I suppose that’s because times are good hereabouts. Property values are up, tourists are plentiful, and the economy is bustling.

Thus, I guess these are the best of times.

But they feel awful.

To usher in this summer with a jolt, the Salida City Council declared a state of emergency and passed a host of ordinances aimed at controlling Salida’s citizens, especially its teenagers.

The City Council made it illegal to so much as walk across a city park after 11 p.m. It passed a curfew for teens fifteen and under, plus a late-night loitering ordinance for everyone of any age, and an ordinance prohibiting the consumption of alcohol by anyone on any street, sidewalk, or parking lot, public or private, that’s generally open to the public.

According to the City Council, such ordinances had to be “immediately enacted” for the “immediate preservation of public health and safety.”

Thus by June there were times when the police presence in downtown Salida rivaled the spectacle at the Atlanta Olympics after the bombing.

For some reason, it often seems to require two or even three Salida police cars to pull people over for minor traffic violations. And loiterers have been approached and ticketed/or warned by not one, but two, three, four or even more officers.

Obviously, the Salida city government has done its utmost to preserve our public health and safety.

But now people are upset about the recurring sound of sirens. Teenagers feel that they’re being harassed. And a lot of kids and adults alike claim that they’ve been followed, questioned and/or detained by the Salida police for no good reason.

To make matters worse, the city has started to dig pits for the super deluxe water meters our council chose over the cheaper kind that many nearby towns are installing.

Plus our city council approved an affordable housing project despite a crescendo of protest.

Then our mayor got upset about a Channel 4 News show that highlighted some of our problems and publicly declared that neither Channel 4 nor the Ride the Rockies bike tour (that inspired the Denver media’s interest in Salida) would ever be welcome in our town again.

After that, of course, many local merchants complained — since the bike tour has become an extremely profitable event.

So Mayor Nancy Sanger demurred.

But new problems arose.

Recently, more and more people seem to be running into difficulties with the county building codes, and with city and county fire regulations. To comply with modern codes, old buildings oftimes need thorough remodeling, which can include handicapped bathrooms, elevators and a host of other ultra-expensive conveniences beyond the earning capacity of small, rural businesses.

There’s a growing contingent of Salidans who are upset about development plans, water projects, annexations, and in a few cases actual land condemnations that directly affect them.

Other people are upset about their water and sewer service (or their lack thereof).

This year, Salida’s city meetings have enjoyed unprecedented popularity. For the first time in my memory, people are flocking to these performances fairly regularly — even though the city council has convinced many citizens, including myself, that it can be supremely unresponsive.

Not long ago, an old-time resident told me that he figured if someone were trying to warn the city council that the building was on fire, they would just keep glancing at their watches until the guy reached his three minute limit; then, amidst a flurry of gavel-pounding, the mayor would announce, “Your time is up. Next.”

Last week, however, the mayor announced a new policy. The city would, for a trial time, conduct meetings without a three-minute limit.

Unfortunately, that was probably a very bad decision — since the level of anger on both sides of the podium these days pretty much precludes any possibility of meaningful discourse.

At this point, I know households whose litanies of complaints could run non-stop for a week. And some people have been none too polite in their approach to the city council.

But, on the other hand, the council hasn’t always been too cordial, either.

Right now, there are so many issues, and so many sides regarding those issues, that almost everyone appears to have a grievance with our city government — even though hardly anyone agrees upon exactly what’s wrong. It’s obvious, however, that a good many Salidans are genuinely worried about policies that may affect their land, their homes, their finances, or their livelihood.

Council members, however, often seem to think that the biggest problem facing Salida is the community’s lack of appreciation for their efforts. In the past year, council members have frequently changed the subject under discussion into how much time city representatives have to work, and how little they get paid.

Since appreciation has seldom been what the citizens came to express, such lectures have usually been followed by more heated objections.

Whereupon our city representatives have characteristically responded by proposing new measures to augment the ordinances which were already under contention.

After a recent waive of complaints about overpolicing and undue ticketing, for example, the council proposed new regulations which would eliminate the judge’s power to drop charges. If adopted, this new policy would also require that at least the minimum fine be imposed for all violations. Thus, a single incidence of standing around talking after a movie could result in fines for loitering, creating a noise disturbance, and violating the curfew.

(Woe betide the underpaid, single parent of a defiant fourteen- year-old if such a measure passes — since our ordinances already punish the poor far more harshly than the rich.)

Undoubtedly, there are many of you who think that a minor should never be out at night, and that a parent should never take ten or fifteen minutes after getting a phone call to pick up their child from a movie or a school event.

But many adults have been stunned to realize that it’s also illegal for them to linger after 11 p.m.

In Salida, it’s illegal to take too long saying goodbye to a friend after an evening at Il Vicino’s, or Crooked Hearts, or the Elk’s Lodge.

It’s illegal to carry that glass of champagne they gave you at the art gallery out onto the street.

It’s illegal to have a beer with your picnic in the park.

But more to the point, in Salida, even staid people who stay at home, never drink, and always water their lawns at the appropriate time — even people who don’t have children, who don’t have dogs, who don’t want to remodel anything, and who can easily afford the new water meters — are getting a little tired of all the commotion.

About now, be it the best of times or not, Salida seems to be sinking into a cesspool of anger, frustration and hyperbole.

And everyone seems weary of it all — be they citizens, police, or elected representatives.

Yet the question remains: How do we stop all this?

Lately, a lot of Salidans have started to look toward the upcoming elections with a resurgence of hope. But going after new blood may be too simplistic a solution.


Because whatever it is that ails Salida seems to be infecting the entire nation.

In our May edition, Ed and I addressed some problems with growth that are certainly exacerbating our current problems, but growth alone does cannot explain our present level of miscommunication and rancor.

On the contrary, it would seem that national politics arrived at such an impasse first. Although admittedly, Salidans have been sparring a bit, U.S. Congressman are more contentious than cougars.

As they themselves would have it, their not-so-worthy opponents are nothing but deceitful, philandering scoundrels addicted to pack money — which more or less makes them fitting representatives in a country full of welfare cheats and criminals.

Our legislators purposely fuel our hostility. In the last election, the candidates promised us more jails, and more police. Politicians grumbled about our immorality, our divorce rates, and our family values. Everyone promised they could lower our taxes by cutting someone else’s purse strings.

And Americans jumped at the bait.

Although most voters say they want less government — they are demanding more.

There’s always some group demanding that our government regulate something — until at times it seems as if Americans want to control everything their neighbors do.

They advocate the government’s right to question, detain, film, record, search, and spy upon the citizens.

They wage court battles over wind chimes, fences, paint colors, and tacky lawn ornaments.

They want to police books, television and the Internet.

They put security cameras in stores, storerooms, office buildings, factories, and even hotel rooms.

In the name of crime prevention, Americans now regulate against youth gangs in towns that don’t have youth gangs.

Today, neighbors don’t negotiate with neighbors, they call the police.

Instead of trusting our fellow citizens and our public schools, we’ve tried to legislate sex education, drug education, building codes, babysitters, birth control, medical treatment, and darn near everything else.

Under the circumstances, it’s little wonder that our local government has gotten more and more intrusive. People expect the government to handle everything.

Does your kid call up porn on the Internet? Write your congressman. Is your neighbor’s yard unsightly? Are his area lights too bright? Does he mow his lawn too early, or shout at his wife? Call the local police, and they’ll take care of everything.

And therefore, even though Salida can change its council, its mayor, and perhaps even its city administrator, it may not be able to change this growing trend toward discord.

— Because to do so would mean saying enough is enough. It would mean saying:

“We are not going to investigate every noise complaint. We are not going to confront your neighbors for you unless you have at least tried talking to them first. We are not going to decide what other people’s kids should wear to school. We are not going to interfere every time someone fixes his porch. We are not going to control what your kids see on television. And we do not want you to report every stranger walking down your street.”

But clearly, Americans are not going to say that anytime soon — because the sad truth is, we just don’t trust one another.

Of course, some of you are saying, “But how can we? Look at them.”

That, however, just proves my point. After the next election, we may have officials who represent our views better. And we may even calm down for a time.

But it probably won’t last too long — because our government just isn’t big enough, omniscient enough, or fair enough to police everything.

Right now, we are turning our schools, our courts, and our government into overburdened, ineffective bureaucracies that are incapable of assuming all the duties we assign them.

With little regard for order or consistency, Americans have been demanding laws, rules, regulations, mandatory punishments, and action so persistently they’ve broken the system. Now, in some cases, our current standards are beyond what we can bear.

Homeowners neglect essential repairs because they’re afraid to get building permits. Coaches are afraid to bandage simple cuts. Teachers have to prepare pages of documentation for parents, principals, counselors, psychologists, and special education workers. Prison sentences seldom make sense; violent rapists get released, and careless parents get life. Doctors overtest and overtreat.

Now, our courts administer justice only to those who have enough money to pay for it. Our schools are floundering. And no one can afford our medical system.

We are destroying our most fundamental institutions with simple-minded, ill-conceived legislation. But we keep on demanding more — because we just can’t trust most people not to mess everything up if we don’t stop them first.

So what are we supposed to do? And where do we go from here?

I don’t have any idea — because you can’t just give distrust the boot the way you can a city councilman.

Yet if we can’t surmount our growing hostility, we may well end up enmeshed in the kind of disaster that inspired A Tale of Two Cities.

Hey, wait — I do know what we can do. We can all start writing letters to demand more legislation against armed revolution.

–Martha Quillen