Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why are some council members afraid to think for themselves?

I spent much of Monday reading, writing and just plain relaxing in my home office. For entertainment I had the Dallas City Council's agenda meeting on the television. I watched them wrangle with the question of "Just how ethical do we want to be?" for much of the morning before they broached the even trickier question of "Just how close to we want our chillun to get to demon likker?"

At issue was an ordinance, supported by state law, that says a store selling beer, wine or other forms of alcohol can't be located within 300 feet of the property line of a school, a church and possibly something else like a hospital. But the main issue is schools or churches. Not the school or church itself, mind you, but its property line. The proposed change offered during Monday's city council meeting would abolish that arbitrary rule and let council members determine these cases individually and perhaps grant variances to the rule if circumstances warrant it. In other words, it would force council members to think, to reason, to study the merits of each application and not hide behind an archaic ordinance.

Here's an example of how ridiculous the current ordinance is. A school could sit at the back of a large campus whose property line is, say, 275 feet from the front door of a proposed grocery store that wants to sell beer and wine. But that grocery store, under the current ordinance, would not be allowed to sell beer and wine even though the distance from its front door to the school's front door is 1,000 feet. Yet a grocery would be allowed to sell beer and wine if the distance from its front door to the school's front door is a third of that 1,000 feet, as long as its property line is more than 300 feet away. Stupid.

For some reason, two council members I always thought wanted to hear and decide issues on their merits, Angela Hunt and Linda Koop, voted against changing this ordinance, both for reasons that had nothing to do with the issue at hand. But Ms. Hunt is a master of dodging the real issue of any question and changing the subject matter to suit her personal agenda. In this case, she tried to change the subject to the square feet of the grocery store in question and not how far it was from the school. Ms. Koop simply expressed a desire to protect children. Fine, Ms. Koop: If a situation comes before the council that endangers children, I would hope you would vote against it. But why deny all applicants just because one of them might pose a danger to school children? Council member Steve Salazar, whom I thought was beginning to show some signs of intelligence that had not been on display during his previous council tenure as well as most of this one, snapped back into his old habits by arguing how the proposed change set "a dangerous precedent," as though it set a rule as arbitrary as the one it changed. The only dangerous precedent it sets, like I said earlier, is forcing council members to reason these cases on their individual merits -- a process, come to think of it, might scare Mr. Salazar.

I've always been taught that every rule has its exceptions. Fortunately, a majority of the city council realized that and the proposed ordinance change passed by, as I recall, an 11-5 vote. So it was a case of all's well that ends well. But while the debate was going on I got to see Hunt, Koop and Salazar do their Three Stooges bit. Talk about Must See TV.

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