Sunday, September 28, 2008

AP's Wasilla-gate Story Makes Mountains of Molehills

Intrepid reporters from the Associated Press have been turning over every rock and rowboat in Alaska, digging for dirt on Sarah Palin, and they've come home with several huge scoops. It turns out she was a college-hopper, attending six different schools in three different states before finally getting a degree, according to the results of one investigation. And now comes a second bombshell, suggesting that Palin may have acted unethically as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, by getting special zoning dispensations and receiving a free facial, free flowers and a free salmon. She also may have had a conflict of interest in voting on matters pertaining to snowmobiles, since her husband, Todd, races them.

Woodward and Bernstein, eat your hearts out.

But read the story. The situations described therein seem less symptomatic of small town corruption than emblematic of small town informality -- something that may seem alien to AP reporters from the big city, but won't be to most Americans. The rigidity and regimentation of big city life in the lower 48 isn't the norm in such places. Rules are meant to bend with real-world circumstances. Familiarity and proximity instead serve as checks on bad behavior or abuses of power. Neighborly gestures, including the giving of gifts, aren't automatically construed as bribes or inducements. And, yes, someone in a position of power may get some minor perks as a result -- though this happens to elected officials at every level of government, and doesn't necessarily breed corruption.

A reasonable person -- which a Pulitzer-hunting reporter isn't -- will not read dark motives or machinations into the "revelations" presented in the story. Zoning variances are granted all the time -- as they should be, since most zoning laws are ridiculous and unjust. And a mayor is as entitled to get one as anyone else. As well, politicians from the federal level on down routinely vote on tax measures that potentially benefit them or their family members: Is the AP suggesting that all such votes are tainted by self-interest, or that all those who are taxed must recuse themselves from such votes? That, too, is silly.

The AP obviously is expending a lot of effort and money scouring Alaska for material damaging to Palin. But the results of this "investigation" seem a poor return on the investment, and it seems as though the news service is straining to produce stories by turning molehills into mountains. Some media scrutiny and scrubbing is to be expected for anyone on the presidential ticket. But is the news service an equal opportunity investigator? Have teams of AP reporters been dispatched to Chicago, to probe Barack Obama's past in Chicago machine politics? I doubt it. Has a reporting team been dispatched to Delaware, to see if Joe Biden ever got comped a crab cake? I'm guessing not.

The AP went moose hunting in Alaska but bagged a field mouse instead. What's really been exposed by its Wasilla-gate stories is the bias and silliness of its reporters and editors.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What Goes Around Comes Around for San Francisco

That environmentalism, in its most extreme and virulent forms, is a mental illness, or at the very least a syndrome of some sort, worthy of mention in psychology text books, can no longer be denied, in my view. Political correctness, and the fear of a backlash, seem to be the only things preventing professionals in the field from making a formal diagnosis.

I'm not a professional. But I know insanity when I see it. And I see it in the following press release from the Center for Biological Diversity, one of many groups whose professional staff and financial supporters suffer from this as-yet unnamed affliction. It must be the first mania in history that can be turned into a career.

One delicious irony in the situation, however, is that the target of the Center's latest suit is Wacko Central, San Francisco, where this probably won't even be recognized as lunacy. But one still harbors the hope, probably vain, that radicals can be reformed if directly confronted with their imbalanced behaviors. As with any 12-step program, the first step toward recovery begins with the recognition that you have a problem.

The press release speaks for itself:

City of San Francisco Warned of Lawsuit over Killing Endangered Species at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica

Conservation Groups Urge Restoration of Coastal Wetlands at Park to Protect San Francisco Garter Snake, California Red-Legged Frog

SAN FRANCISCO— The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the City and County of San Francisco for illegally killing and harming two endangered species at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act. Activities at the golf course have been killing federally protected California red-legged frogs, and recent studies show that ongoing course operations may be threatening endangered San Francisco garter snakes.

“The time is right to restore Sharp Park to its natural condition,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “ San Francisco has a golden opportunity to save taxpayers’ money, preserve our endangered species, and improve recreational access to our coast.”

The Center is calling on San Francisco to cease harming endangered species, restore Sharp Park to its natural state as a coastal wetland, and provide more diverse recreational opportunities for the public at the site. The Center opposes a flawed plan released recently by San Francisco's Recreation and Park Department that calls for privatizing the mismanaged and financially failing golf course and illegally reconstructing flooded portions of the course at the expense of endangered species.

The operation and mismanagement of the golf course is undermining habitat-restoration work within the nearby Golden Gate National Recreation Area for the garter snake and the frog at adjacent Mori Point. In 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notified the Recreation and Park Department that golf course operations were illegally “taking” threatened California red-legged frogs (Rana aurora draytonii) by draining and pumping the frog’s aquatic habitats, which strands and desiccates frog eggs and kills tadpoles. New evidence has surfaced that extremely rare San Francisco garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia) have been killed by groundskeepers mowing grass in areas that the snake uses for basking.

Sharp Park Golf Course is owned by the City and County of San Francisco but is located to the south of the city on the coast, in Pacifica. Its ongoing environmental problems are largely due to poor design and unfortunate placement. To create the course in the early 1930s, the Recreation and Park Department dredged and filled areas around a lagoon known as Laguna Salada for 14 months. Not surprisingly, Sharp Park has had problems with flooding and drainage ever since. The course’s ceremonial opening day was delayed twice due to wet playing conditions, major coastal floods have on two occasions destroyed several holes, and normal winter rains flood the course nearly every year.

“Sharp Park is built over lagoon wetlands and will always lack proper natural drainage and require extravagant effort to maintain,” said Peter Baye, a coastal ecologist who prepared lagoon-wetland restoration plans for California State Parks and the National Recreation Area.

“Maintaining a drowning golf course as sea levels rise is a futile investment. Restoring flood outlets and expanding marsh areas would improve endangered species habitat and increase flood-control options for adjacent landowners.”

San Francisco is reviewing all of its municipally owned golf courses to map out their future use. The Center for Biological Diversity has proposed restoring Sharp Park to a natural state and providing access to hiking trails, picnicking spots, camping facilities and educational opportunities – all of which are sorely needed in San Mateo County.

The Recreation and Park Department, on the other hand, in August released a fatally flawed consultant’s report that advocates privatizing San Francisco’s public golf courses and reconstructing Sharp Park as an "elite" golf course with all 18 holes west of Highway 1. The plan’s recommendations would destroy and fragment much of the snake and frog habitat on the site. It would make flood problems significantly worse, create legal liability to San Francisco for flood damage to adjacent properties, and involve time-consuming permit processes for development that will never be allowed by state and federal regulatory agencies.

“This habitat destruction plan is a non-starter, and if pursued further by the Recreation and Park Department will result in a costly lawsuit for San Francisco,” Miller said. “It is untenable on economic, flood management, and ecological grounds and imposes huge financial and legal risks to the City and County of San Francisco and its taxpayers.”

"Sharp Park is a critical link in the chain of endangered species habitats on the central coast,” said Peter Brastow, director of Nature in the City, a local conservation group. “A restored Sharp Park ecosystem would seamlessly integrate into the surrounding National Park landscape and could be showcased as a natural area where children and adults can connect with wild nature in their own backyard."

The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club San Francisco Bay and Loma Prieta chapters, San Francisco League of Conservation Voters, Nature In The City, and Golden Gate Audubon Society all have called on San Francisco to consider restoration of coastal wetlands and endangered species habitat at Sharp Park.

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department’s Golf Course Task Force will meet at 6 p.m. next Monday, September 29th, at San Francisco City Hall, Room 278, to discuss the consultant’s report and the future of the Sharp Park Golf Course.

Taking Hart to Heart

When the Democrats gathered in Denver for their convention, there was a lot of heady talk, and expectations were running high, that winning the West was within the party’s reach. It still may be. But the exuberance and self-assurance waned a bit when John McCain surprised nearly everyone by shrewdly selecting a down-to-earth, small-town Westerner (yes, Alaska counts), Sarah Palin, as a running mate. Palin is perceived as someone who knows how to speak the West’s language, and as someone who connects with Western values, something neither Barack Obama nor Joe Biden can claim. Now the West seems again up for grabs.

Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart is trying to salvage his party’s Western strategy not so much by stumping for the Obama-Biden ticket, but my educating party insiders about what they need to do, issue-wise, to make lasting inroads in the region. And I think, for the most part, he offers some sound advice – if the party can take Hart to heart.

Hart’s ideas are distilled in a 10-point manifesto, which is condensed as follows by

-Protect the sanctity of property. The party should condemn the Supreme Court decision allowing eminent domain for commercial use.

-Protect natural resources. Except in the most rock-ribbed, pro-development areas, westerners are for balancing resource development with resource conservation. Most want minerals, timber, and other resources developed at a reasonable pace on a reasonable timetable.

-Energy and the environment. Development of coal, oil shale and other fossil fuels, uranium, nuclear power and hydro projects should be undertaken with maximum attention to the environment. Encourage renewables such as solar, wind and biomass.

-Public lands. The federal government is the dominant landlord in the West. National forests, public lands, national parks and wilderness areas put the federal government front and center in planning for the region.

-Recreation. Recreational industries are crucial to the region's economy. Their profits are tied to preservation.

-Growth and the economy. Westerners want to maximize contradictory values. Life-stylers want growth controlled and often limited. Entrepreneurs want resources developed to achieve maximum profit.

-Technology. The West is the technology base of America, and the Democratic Party should promote regional high technology education and training centers to stimulate this trend.

-Mediation and arbitration. All of this balancing requires political leadership which understands the history and culture of the region. The party has been seen almost exclusively as a captive of the environmental movement.

-National security. The West is keenly focused on national security issues, having been the base for much of the nation's Cold War military structure and defense contracts. Democrats are not seen as having a coherent outlook on America's military role in the 21st century.

-Principles and values. Westerners do not like the beliefs of others imposed on them and are people who believe in principles: integrity, honor, courage, accountability. The religious right preaches values. Democrats should espouse principles.

The problem, though, is that some of Hart’s best suggestions, like getting the Democrats on the right side of the property rights issue, are fundamentally at odd with the party’s collectivist, command and control mindset.

The Kelo decision, though abhorred in Mainstreet America, was cheered by many urban politicos -- a key party demographic -- who view intransigent property owners as an obstacle to their grand urban development plans. And the party’s incestuous relationship with green extremists, which view property rights as a major stumbling block to “saving the planet,” a hindrance to fuller implementation of all the major environmental laws, from ESA to NEPA, and a hassle for the “smart growth” and “sustainability” movements, inhibits the party’s ability to take the moderate, common sense tack on energy and public lands issues Hart proposes.

Another major challenge to winning over Westerners, which does not appear as one of Hart’s 10 points, is the party’s inconsistency and disingenuousness on the issue of federalism -- on the desire of Western states for more autonomy from Washington, and for a true partnership in managing federal lands. A party that seems all about Washington, as the Democrats still do – about amassing power and resources in, and imposing “solutions” from, the capital city – can’t also credibly reinvent itself as the party that would give the West more latitude to go its own way, on energy, on public lands and on loosening the federal regulatory controls that often fall hardest on the region. My August 22 blog post on Ken Salazar’s cowboy hat -- here -- lays out some specific inconsistencies.

Here, too, the party’s alliance with the environmental lobby is a major liability, since these groups prefer that almost complete control over Western land decisions be vested in Washington, where greens get a respectful and receptive hearing, from Eastern politicians especially, and their lobbying and legal clout is most focused. Most Westerners outside the city centers, unless they're transplants, quite rightly view The Sierra Club and similar groups as an alien enemy, not an ally, because these groups have come to see saturation litigation, endless red tape and the analysis paralysis endemic to Washington as good for their agenda. This agenda opposes active forest management, opposes realistic energy development, disregards property rights, refuses to reform Draconian laws like ESA and NEPA, and wants to evict a good portion of the public from the public lands, in a bow to what I call recreational correctness. And all these values clash with those of most common-sense Westerners.

Some Democrats have been trying to distance themselves from teachers’ unions, in a bid to move the party forward on public school reform. But until the party can do something similar with gang green, and begins to disavow the anti-property rights, anti-energy development, anti-capitalist, anti-free market, relentlessly extreme positions of this particular constituency, it will have little chance of making big gains in most of the non-urbanized West.

Monday, September 22, 2008

More Ammunition for Lifting the National Park Gun Ban

Unless one takes the preposterous position that national parks are, or should be, Constitution-free zones, there’s no tenable legal reason why the gun ban in parks should continue. But the push by some in Congress -- here and here -- to lift the ban rarely focuses on such fundamental questions. Instead, backers of maintaining the ban make it seem, equally implausibly, that parks are crime- and violence- and danger-free zones -- pristine sanctuaries akin to the Garden of Eden, where firearms aren’t just unnecessary but an abomination.

This argument, too, is untenable, since parks are not, and can’t be, walled off from the rest of society. Crimes against property and people do occur there, including robbery, rape and murder. Wild animal encounters, although rare, also can happen. And the chance of running into potential trouble in a park is on the increase, since they’ve become pot plantations for drug cartels, as this recent story in USA Today makes clear. Here’s a related news report from a few days ago.

This graph from The Washington Post provides relatively up-to-date figures on crime in parks. And while the Post downplays the statistics, calling crime there “relatively rare,” that’s little consolation to the park visitor who is deprived of the ability to defend himself with a firearm if he's unlucky enough to become a statistic. One sees a steady increase in crime over the past 5 years, with a slight decline in 2006. And I venture to guess that, if one looked at the trend lines over 10 to 20 years, the mounting crime threat would become even more noticeable.

Here’s a Christian Science Monitor write-up on the subject from several years ago, before the gun ban became an issue, so there's no attempt by firearms-phobes to sugarcoat the situation. Here’s another in The Seattle Times.

And you know things are getting a little sketchy out there when hunters – who already go armed – are receiving what amount to State Department travel advisories about venturing into our national forests. The warning to hunters in Washington State involves a national forest, not a national park, but whether criminals recognize or respect such boundaries is doubtful. They are just looking for a secluded and relatively safe -- from their perspective -- place to operate. And in national parks, they can count on the fact that any interlopers they stumble across will be unarmed -- which can only make these locales more inviting.

Clearly, there’s no legal, moral or public safety justification for keeping the national park gun ban.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Last Respectable Form of Discrimination

Many school districts have begrudgingly made peace with charter schools, if only because their popularity with parents means the concept is here to stay. I say “begrudgingly” because many school districts, resenting the competition, will still find ways to undermine and underfund charters, treating them like the proverbial ugly step child, when they get the chance.

The Denver Rocky Mountain News today quite correctly takes Denver area school districts to task for putting $1.9 billion in bond measures before voters that, in the editorial’s words, offer “charter schools little more than crumbs from the table.” Explains The Rocky:

“According to Jim Griffin, president of the Colorado League of Charters Schools, only about $15 million of the bond proceeds have been allocated to the metro area's 56 charters. That's only about 0.8 percent of the total going to more than 5 percent of the students. (There are approximately 21,000 charter-school students among these school districts and roughly 386,000 students in all.)”

It’s long past time that school districts in Colorado and elsewhere got over the idea that charter schools are somehow different from conventional public schools, and stopped treating the parents and students who attend these schools as second class citizens, even though they are every bit as worthy of full funding, and of respect, and of equal treatment under the law, as any other public school patron.

We don’t tolerate such discrimination in other public policy arenas; why do we tolerate it in regard to charter schools? It's a segregationist mindset, minus the racial component.

Not every Denver-area school district cops this attitude, thankfully. Jefferson County Public Schools, Jim Griffin tells the Rocky, treats its charters like partners, not competitors. “This is how the process was meant to work," concludes The Rocky. “If school districts continue to leave charter schools out in the cold, the legislature should revisit the issue and consider more forceful means of assuring that charters get their fair share."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

John McCain: Motor City Madam

It’s strange what a visit to a swing state can do to a politician’s willingness to stand on rock solid principle.

It seems only weeks ago that Sen. John McCain, the anti-Washington, anti-Big Oil, fiscally-responsible reformer, was vowing to oppose “corporate welfare” wherever it reared its ugly head. The panhandlers in pinstripes would hold no sway in a McCain administration. Beltway bandits beware: There's a new sheriff coming to town.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the auto factory.

Speaking Wednesday at a General Motors plant in the swing state of Michigan, McCain said this:

"I'm here to send a message to Washington and Wall Street: We are not going to leave the workers here in Michigan hung out to dry while we give billions in taxpayer dollars to Wall Street. It is time to get our auto industry back on its feet. It's time for a new generation of cars and for loans to build the facilities that will make them."

Loans from whom, one might ask? Loans from Uncle Sam, of course. The corporate welfare-fighter supports giving $25 billion in federal loans to domestic automakers, ostensibly for development of "advanced vehicle technology" which constitutes a bat-turn, since McCain formerly opposed such a bailout. And who will eat the $25 billion if the companies go belly-up, or can't repay? We assembly-line taxpayers, that's who.

The companies are seeking $50 billion in loans, so, according to Washington math, and Washington "logic," McCain the fiscal conservative might argue that he supports a 50 percent “cut” in the all but inevitable bailout package. He might also argue that it’s a loan, not a grant, so doesn't technically count as welfare.

But this sort of inside-the-beltway "reasoning" (or is it rationalizing?) will quickly undermine McCain's already tenuous claim to being a Washington outsider. Such obfuscations are one sure way to derail the "Straight Talk Express.” And such pandering, while it may help McCain carry Michigan, makes one wonder how much backbone he would have as president. It all makes McCain look like just another assembly-line politico.

For what does it profit a man to gain Michigan and lose his soul?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Runaway Boulder Crushes Residents

It's bad enough when a city or town declares an entire neighborhood "historic," over the objections of property owners who (quite understandably) fear that their freedom to renovate or demolish a home or business will be usurped by some historic preservation committee. But even more alarming is the possibility that such designations could be made piecemeal, targeting individual properties that the city, or busy-body neighbors, don't want changed.

Simply by declaring a property "historic," the city acquires veto power over what that property owner can do with it. The individual's rights are thereby trampled in order to satisfy the aesthetic whims of the collective.

That's exactly what occurred Tuesday evening in the collectivist commune called Boulder, where the owners of an old cottage found themselves separated from their property rights on a 5-3 vote by City Council. Just like that, Boulder's Planning Board "will gain veto power over any plans they submit, and the proposed expansion will fall under more stringent standards" according to the Boulder Daily Camera. (Read the entire story here.) Even the city's historic preservation planner recommended against the action, arguing that designating the house a landmark didn't balance public and private interests. But the city went ahead anyway, depriving Michael and Michelle Clements of the ability to renovate the cottage as they see fit.

"The couple says they’ve already spent more than $100,000 fighting to build their dream home on the property, while maintaining all but a wooden addition to the cottage that was built in 1952," The Daily Camera reports.

Michelle Clements said at the meeting that the process she and her husband have had to endure so far has been “468 days of emotional and financial devastation.”

She told the council she’s had enough of the city’s process.

“We should have the comfort of knowing we can build without the heavy hand of government hanging over our heads,” she said."

But Americans can no longer enjoy that comfort -- which serves as the foundation for all the other rights and freedoms they hold dear -- when elected officials and appointed planning boards can use coercive historic preservation in this way. If such abuses of power can't be overturned in the courts, they should at least be condemned in the court of public opinion.

But where are the pickets? Where are the protests? Where are Boulder's indignant human rights activists now, when the most fundamental of civil rights -- the right to be secure in your person and possessions -- is being trampled by their elected officials, in their backyard? The silence is deafening -- and reveals a dark and disturbing blind spot in the collectivist mindset.

Given the way this city rolls over its residents, and crushes their rights, they don't call it Boulder for nothing.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Energy Subsidy Shell Games

Now that Congress is back in session, and working on yet another energy package, Big Wind, Big Sun, and Big Bio are lining up at the trough for more federal handouts, to be paid with higher taxes on Big Oil, according to this Associated Press report. This really means that the "renewable" subsidies come courtesy of gasoline users like you and me, since oil and gas companies don't eat these costs, but pass them on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

Some folks argue that because Big Oil benefits from subsidies of one form or another (depending on how one defines the term), it's only fair that these "cleaner" alternatives get government handouts as well. But instead of compounding our energy policy errors, I would argue that we should eliminate all energy subsidies, across the board, to "old" and "new" energy companies alike, and let the best energy options prevail, responding to market forces and consumer choice.

There's no more virtue in giving corporate welfare to Big Wind or Big Sun than in giving it to Big Oil. In either case, the "Bigs" make out like bandits while the consumers and taxpayers get screwed.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Journey to Planet Hamptons

At least once a day, while selecting the news stories I post on Local Liberty Online, I shake my head and ask, "Is this really happening in America?" But giving wider exposure to the tyranny that lurks in America’s backyard, and finding ways to combat it, is what LLO is all about.

Today's believe-it-or-not story comes from The East Hampton Star, out on Long Island, where a man, after being caught by authorities clearing a playing area for his kids, is attempting to atone for his environmental crimes by buying another piece of property and donating it to the city. Because this is the Hamptons, that lot will cost the man nearly $500,000 -- money obviously is no object for the swells living there. But putting that issue aside, the whole situation, as written up by The Star, seems surreal, if not Kafkaesque.

So please join me on a journey to Planet Hamptons, which seems like an alien world from the United States of America we all think we know so well. And don't forget to read the second item, about the new paddleboarding regulations imposed on East Hamptonites.

Read it and weep:

"Greg Weinstein, a resident of Old Orchard Lane in East Hampton who was cited for clearing too much of his two-acre house lot, has offered the East Hampton Town Board a deal so that he can keep the land as is.

Mr. Weinstein bought the property largely the way it is and likes it that way, his attorney, Jeff Bragman, told the board on Tuesday. The lot is in a water recharge zone where the amount of clearing is restricted to protect groundwater. The property now has about a half acre more cleared than allowed. Mr. Bragman said the open area was ideal for Mr. Weinstein’s children. He added that Mr. Weinstein had had a small, additional area cleared for a practice soccer goal for them.

Normally, cases of this kind are resolved in zoning court, and property owners wind up rectifying violations, which in this case would mean replanting. The deal Mr. Weinstein has proposed in order to keep his land the way he prefers is that he would buy a piece of property that the town has been hoping to preserve and make a gift of it.

The proposal, Mr. Bragman said, has already passed muster with the zoning court judge, Lisa Rana, who sees it as a viable settlement to the overclearing court case, the lawyer said, as long as the town board agrees.

Mr. Weinstein has already signed a $490,000 conditional contract to buy the lot that he would give to the town — a 33,000-square-foot parcel off Old Stone Highway in Springs. Mr. Bragman said the land contains wetlands and “has been a thorn in the side of the town and the [zoning board of appeals] for a couple of years” because its owner is pursuing a plan to build a house there.

Mr. Bragman said he had told his client that he could resolve the matter by revegetating the property at a cost of between $10,000 and $20,000 instead of spending hundreds of thousands more.

But, he said, Mr. Weinstein had given him a budget of $500,000 and he had been “cold-calling” owners of properties the town has eyed, particularly those in water recharge zones. The Old Stone Highway property was suggested to him by Larry Penny, the town natural resources director, who had tagged it as an environmentally sensitive site.

Opinions on the town board were mixed, though all agreed to hold a public hearing on the idea.

“What is the special circumstance here?” Councilman Pete Hammerle asked. “Are we saying that the clearing restrictions we have in our town code don’t really matter as much on this lot? A lot of people aren’t going to be able to propose this kind of solution.”

“This is not just a rich guy buying his way out of the problem,” Mr. Bragman told the board. Essentially, he said, “anybody going before the court is going to be buying their way out of the problem,” by spending money to rectify violations, and pay a fine.

It is “legitimate,” Mr. Bragman said, to ask the board to decide, “on balance, over all, does this make environmental sense?”

“I’m suggesting it is worth it to trade about 20,000 square feet of clearing here — that’s probably been cleared for 15 years or so — in exchange for picking up 33,000 square feet of non-clearing on a wetlands property. But also no house, and no septic system, so you’re eliminating a unit of density. On balance, it makes sense,” he said.

Board members expressed some concern about setting a precedent. Such a proposal would not arise often, Mr. Bragman said, “but it is a way of engaging private people who can do this to come in and save the town some preservation dollars.”

“It’s like fees in lieu of the clearing ordinance,” Councilwoman Pat Mansir said, referring to a mechanism by which developers of some commercial property may pay into a fund ostensibly used to buy land for parking instead of providing the parking normally required.

“Had he done the clearing himself, I would say absolutely not,” Town Supervisor Bill McGintee said, citing a situation where “someone who over-cleared then wants to buy their way out of it. But under the circumstances I could be supportive of this,” he said.

John Jilnicki, the acting town attorney, advised against any change to the town code that would officially allow those not in compliance with zoning laws to resolve their cases in ways that would permit them to avoid following the rules. However, he said, exceptions could be made in the context of a settlement of the zoning court case.

Councilman Hammerle remained opposed, but agreed to listen to public opinion about the idea at the hearing. In addition, he pressed the board, “If we could spell out the ‘special circumstances’ parameters as clearly as possible. . . .

So that this doesn’t set a precedent and open a can of worms.”

To Regulate Paddleboards

Stand-up paddleboarders will soon be required to wear life jackets (or other personal flotation devices) while crossing a body of water in East Hampton Town. Near-shore paddlers, or those paddling the boards in the ocean, may continue to do so without them.

Ed Michels, the town’s chief harbormaster, said on Monday that an incident during a paddle last month from Fresh Pond, Amagansett, to Fort Pond Bay, Montauk, led to his department’s decision to define paddleboards as vessels for the purpose of regulating them under the town code. During the cross-bay paddle, the participants spread out, and one paddler fell off his board, was unable to retrieve it, and required help. At another point, a boat came dangerously close to a paddler, Mr. Michels said

The town code says a vessel is any “watercraft (including wind surfboards) or other contrivance used or capable of being used as a means of transportation in water. . . .” The code requires vessel operators to abide by Coast Guard regulations on safety equipment. The stand-up paddleboard is an updated variation of an old, Hawaiian board. They are longer, wider, and thicker than the average longboard used for surfing. Most are made of epoxy-covered foam. Paddles are made of wood or lightweight carbon fiber.

“If you’re on a surfboard and go 100 yards offshore, okay. But if you put a sail on it and head for Connecticut, it’s a vessel,” Mr. Michels said. Mr. Michels said he had discussed the issue with the state boating administrator and Coast Guard officials who agreed with the policy. “If they’re close to the beach, okay. But if they’re out in the open, we’re going to make them come back if they’re not wearing a p.f.d.,” the chief harbormaster said.

Mr. Michels said the p.f.d. did not have to be of the type the Coast Guard calls type one — the most buoyant, usually with a foam composition. The type two, near-shore safety belt or vest used by water skiers would be sufficient, he said."

Sunday, September 7, 2008

McCain Makes a Play for the College-Hopper Vote

In their search for dirt on Sarah Palin, the intrepid reporters of the AP have landed a Pulitzer-worthy scoop. She reportedly attended six different colleges, in three different states, in six years -- a fact that wasn't disclosed on her official governor's office biography!

When will politicians learn? It's not the college-hopping that kills you; it's the cover-up.

Palin's grades are shielded by pesky privacy laws, but one can imagine, given her obvious lack of stability in those years, that she was no Rhodes Scholar. And can't you just wait for the vice presidential debate zingers Joe Biden's brains are scribbling on cue cards, to be dropped on her, like an anvil, at just the right moment? "I guess it's not surprising that you've changed your position on earmarks, Governor," he'll quip, "given your repeated flip-flops on a choice of college." Or how about this one? "Do Americans really want someone with her finger on the nuclear button," Biden will ask, looking gravely into the camera, his hair plugs glistening with flop sweat, "who can't even make up her mind about what college to attend?"

It will bring the house down. She'll be crushed. Lloyd Benson (if he's still alive) will cable his congratulations, for the second greatest cut down in modern debating history.

But wait: Maybe this reaffirms the diabolical brilliance of McCain's choice. There must be millions of Americans who changed schools (I did) and feel guilty about it (I certainly do). Some of them more than once. They'll relate to Palin as a kindred spirit. They'll know that she feels their pain, and knows their secret shame. Putting another college-hopper in the White House is a chance for respect, and for redemption, and they'll line up en mass behind the McCain-Palin ticket?

Whether the college-hopper vote can overcome the community organizer vote, only time will tell. But this college-hopper's vote is going to the McCain-Palin ticket.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Reprogramming Sarah Palin

The biggest danger for Sarah Palin isn't that she'll be dismantled by Democrats, or by the so-called mainstream media. A greater fear of mine is that she'll be reprogrammed, and ruined, by her Republican handlers.

The Washington Post reports today that Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is among the people coaching Palin in preparation for her critically important debate with Senator Joe Blowhard. But I think Palin could risk looking foolish, and having a Dan Quayle moment, if she tries selling herself as the second coming of Henry Kissinger.

This shouldn't be Jeopardy prep, and she'll be wasting her time, and likely become a deer in the headlights on debate night, if she spends her days memorizing the name of the president of Azerbaijan, in a vain attempt to woo the Washington and media establishments.

There's no shame in Palin acknowledging that foreign policy expertise is not normally required of governors -- and in pointing to the long list of contemporary governors-turned-presidents who had none when they went to the White House. There's no shame in her noting that any president or vice president has access to the best advisers imaginable, inside and outside the executive branch. There's no shame, and she might even win points with potential voters for candor, in admitting that there will be some learning on the job, while stressing that she'll have an excellent mentor in Senator John McCain.

And that sort of humility might help draw a sharper contrast with the egomaniacs on the Democrat ticket.

A better use of Palin's time would be tutoring her on Joe Biden's abysmal misjudgments on foreign policy over the years. She might start by studying this critique of Biden's Cold War-era foreign policy positions in The Wall Street Journal.

A chimp could function reasonably well as president, in my opinion, and many have. Being an autodidact, as Jimmy Carter fashioned himself, may actually be a hindrance. What matters more than a mastery of minutia is intelligence, common sense, good instincts and composure under pressure -- qualities that this woman already has shown in spades.

She may look the part in her Marian the Librarian glasses, but Republican attempts to reprogram Palin, and turn her into some policy wonk pinhead, may dull her natural political instincts and rob her of the authenticity that makes her so appealing.

But it would be just the sort of mistake "the stupid party" would make.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

One Ruling Closer to Judicial Oligarchy

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called the ruling "heartbreaking," but "infuriating" better describes the Florida Supreme Court's haughty decision to summarily bump three education-related measures from November's ballot, without even deigning to explain itself. "The court did not explain its reasoning," reports The New York Times. "Instead it issued a one-page ruling saying that the amendments could not go on the November ballot and that a full opinion would be issued later."

The ruling is more than just a setback for the cause of school choice in Florida, and a potential death blow to a nascent school voucher program Bush has championed since he was governor there, which Democrats and teachers unions have tried mightily to derail. It marks another alarming lurch in the direction of a judicial oligarchy in the Unites States, in which arrogant judges become the final arbiters in every policy dispute, or, as in this case, preempt the peoples' right to decide for themselves.

The least a court can do, if it's going to deny the people a vote, is explain its reasoning. Declining to do so isn't just insulting, but suggests that the court is acting in a purely reactionary fashion, motivated more by ideology than legal or constitutional principle. But judges could not so rule -- and would not now effectively rule the country -- unless there were interest groups (in this case, teachers' unions) determined to win in the courtroom what they fear they can't win in the court of public opinion. And these groups, as well as the Americans who lend them financial and moral support, are also guilty of subverting our democratic institutions.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tyranny Tetrazzini on the Menu in Aspen

We’re all familiar with local attempts to “create” affordable housing, which usually means making housing much more expensive for some people in order to lower the rents or mortgages for other people. But I’d never, until recently, heard of a city mandating affordable pub grub.

Aspen is attempting to do just that, however, by conditioning a building permit on the property owner’s creation of a “working man’s bar” on the premises, with menu prices set at the “third lowest” of all the eateries in town. The city is laying down these conditions as part of a “compromise,” after being sued by the builder for petulantly refusing to give the project a go-ahead.

Think it can't happen in America? Think again.

“The settlement contemplates a deed restriction on the property that would require the basement be a 1,800-square-foot bar, restaurant or brewery,” reports The Aspen Times. “The rent on the property can be no greater than 75 percent of the free-market rental for similar basement space in downtown Aspen — and not greater than $50 per square foot for the first year. In return, the City Council will allow the owners to subdivide the property and redevelop it into a mixed-use building.”

Aspen’s City Council doesn’t “want the city to be the ultimate enforcer of the covenants,” adds the Times. “Instead, they said the landlords should bear the burden of proving they are meeting the city’s imposed restrictions.”

How these "unprecedented” (in the Times' words) deed restrictions will be established and enforced, and whether the property owners will actually give in to this regulatory blackmail, is yet to be determined. The next hearing on the matter is set for late September. But the whole thing seems absurd.

Who, for instance, will the city send around to every restaurant in Aspen, collecting menu prices, so an average can be determined? Will this exercise be repeated each time menu prices go up? Will drink prices also be dictated by the city, since affordable imbibing is as rare as affordable eating in swanky Aspen. What decor is required to establish an authentic “working man’s pub” atmosphere, anyway? Will the jukebox have to play a certain quota of Hank Williams tunes? Must peanut shells litter the floor? Will the pool cues be sufficiently warped? And what about that stale beer smell?

These sorts of joints can't just be mandated by City Hall: It can take years of wear and tear to create a bona fide dive.

And what if, after all this, you build a working man’s pub, with working man’s pub prices mandated by City Hall, and it goes broke, because there aren’t enough working men and women left in Aspen to go there? Will City Hall demand that a ski bum hangout, or a Manhattan-style deli, or an all-organic gourmet Pizzeria be put in its place? Where will the meddling, and the madness, end?

A few on Aspen’s City Council have expressed reservations about the arrangement, to their credit. One wondered whether all the restrictions would make it hard to find a tenant -- do ya think? Another “expressed concern that if the city places too many restrictions on the space, few people will be able to make a successful business there,” according to the Times. But common sense and restraint are routinely overridden in Aspen’s rush to stay on the regulatory cutting edge.

I’m sure the property owner, in the interest of moving ahead with a very expensive project, and shedding some legal bills, might be inclined to bend over for this sort of abuse. That would be a shame. Because unless someone stands up to the local despots in Aspen City Hall, and refuses to let such petty and ridiculous conditions be placed on their property rights, the downhill slope toward tyranny is only going to get more slippery in this out-of-control ski town.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Keeping People in their Places

Bill Vogrin, who writes the "Side Streets" column for The Colorado Springs Gazette, last week unceremoniously exhumed the unsavory racist origins of neighborhood covenants in Colorado Springs -- covenants that continue to vex property owners of all colors and creeds today. Here's some language -- described as "boilerplate" for the era -- from a 1940 covenant placed on homeowners in one part of town:

"No lot in said tract shall at any time be lived upon by any person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race, and for the purpose of this paragraph, no Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Hindu or any other person of the Ethiopian, Indian or Mongolian races shall be deemed to be Caucasian . . . If persons not of the Caucasian race be kept thereon by such a Caucasian occupant, strictly in the capacity of servants or employees of such occupant, such circumstance shall not constitute a violation."

We've come a long way since then, thankfully. Overt racism, at least of this sort, is today mostly hidden from view. But it's useful to at least recall the racist and exclusionist origins of these and other localized restrictions on property rights if we want to appreciate the continuing injustice at their core. Zoning laws have similar roots: they were first used in California to keep the Chinese on the other side of the tracks.

The overt racial overtones fell away as time passed. The Progressive era saw these sorts of laws put to use by organizing "experts" and uplifters. Along the way, their constitutionality was weighed and affirmed (wrongly) by courts. And they gradually became an entrenched part of the American landscape; unquestioned, unchallenged, but clearly unjust and un-American.

These laws began as a means of segregating people, along racial or socioeconomic lines, and they continue to function as such, albeit in much more subtle ways. Does that mean that people who support zoning, codes and neighborhood covenants, in their contemporary context, harbor racist leanings? Of course not. But they do tend to be the sorts of people who want to keep people in their places, figuratively and sometimes literally, forcing conformity to the collective by setting conditions on property rights. They value order more than they value freedom, regimentation more than property rights.

The fundamental unfairness that lies at the root of such rules persists, even if time and familiarity have made them, to most people, a respectable part of the modern American landscape.