Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Two or Three Recent Encounters with Local Government
Water, water . . . well, not exactly everywhere. Hot chocolate is also mentioned. And then there's my recent life on the other side of the law in the People's Republic of Rockyland.
This Week I Don't Envy These Guys
On Monday morning I went to work, as I usually do on Human Rights Day or Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, or whatever it's called now in Utah. (This is not a political statement; I do the same on Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, Veterans Day, etc.) I hadn't been at my office too long before I received a report that a water line appeared to be broken at the LDS Chapel where my ward (congregation) meets. Said chapel is even closer to my office than it is to my home, so I went to check.
The break was at the edge of the street, clearly on the road side of the meter, so it was American Fork City's job to fix it. It wasn't a severe leak, and the drains were handling it. I called MFCC for the phone number of American Fork's Public Works Department. The answering machine there gave an after-hours number for emergencies. Remember that this was a holiday . . .
I was able to get an actual human at that number without difficulty; I don't recall his name. He was friendly and professional, but sounded a bit tired. He told me that City crews had been battling water line problems all weekend in the bitter cold, and that they were currently working on major breaks in one twelve-inch water main and one eight-inch water main at other locations in the city. He asked for details of my situation and said he'd come soon to evaluate it, but the likely action would be to mark it as a hazard right away, then get to it within a day or two, as soon as the more severe problems elsewhere were resolved.
A little later, I noticed that some pylons had been placed to alert traffic to the minor hazard. Then this morning a crew was there, looking very cold, working on the problem. By early afternoon, if not sooner, they had fixed the water line, filled the hole, and finished the job entirely, except for repaving where they had dug, which I presume will happen sometime soon, as circumstances permit.
Note that low temperatures this week have been very near zero degrees Fahrenheit. High temperatures have been about 20 degrees. I myself am often on call at work to handle situations at odd hours, but I do it from the comfort of a good chair in my temperature-controlled office or my basement office at home. The public works crews do it outside, no matter how hot or cold or otherwise unpleasant it may be.
So, metaphorically, I raise my mug of hot chocolate to toast the public works guys (and gals, if any there be in American Fork). I'm glad we have them. I'm glad I'm not one of them this week. I'm glad we gave them a raise last year.
Cold and Malfunctioning at the U
On a recent very cold, solidly overcast morning, I was on campus at the University of Utah. (I attended BYU, but my mother was a Ute, so keep your derision to yourself, please. Don't offend a blogger's deceased mother's alma mater -- or, if you judge a school by this year's basketball team, a blogger's mother's deceased alma mater.) I was trying to get MFCC and one other individual to an event on time, and it was going to be close. So I was watching the van's digital clock.
We sat at a red light, waiting to turn left, for several minutes -- between 3.5 and 4.5 minutes, which is as precise as I could be without a second hand on a watch or clock. Clearly the light was malfunctioning. MFCC and I agreed on this. Then we waited some more. Traffic was accumulating behind us. She told me how she sees this sometimes in American Fork and reports it to the City Engineer, who then has the camera adjusted, and everything is fine.
According to the Utah Code 41-6a-305(6) . . .
. . . Which I duly did. Shortly thereafter, flashing lights clearly meant for me inspired me to pull over and reach for my driver license and other documentation. The young officer had not been watching for three or four minutes -- less than one minute, I think -- and she didn't buy my story, though it was true. This led to my second traffic citation in 27 years of driving -- for complying with the law, as quoted above. Asked how many minutes one should wait before deciding a light that doesn't change is broken, as in stuck, and proceeding cautiously into the intersection, she essentially said, "Until it turns green."
I went back to that intersection several hours later, when it was warmer and the sun was shining. I timed that red light, which was then working normally. I watched it for ten minutes. If there was any traffic waiting, it remained red for only 25 seconds -- every time.
I trust that this very young officer, with her admirable zeal for enforcing the law, will eventually learn some common sense, too. I'm glad people are willing to be police officers. We need them. But I'm not toasting this one with my figurative hot chocolate.
Meanwhile . . .
It Wasn't Very Much Like Law and Order
I prepared my case, including Exhibits A through I, and made my way this very afternoon to the Salt Lake City Justice Court, to speak with a hearing officer and attempt to have my version of justice prevail in this matter. I mostly failed.
The affable, knowledgeable, outwardly sympathetic hearing officer explained that he couldn't dismiss the citation unless I had official documentation from the Utah Department of Transportation or the City of Salt Lake, stating that the light was malfunctioning at that time. But he could rake one-third off the fine. And if I wanted to pay extra, I could go to traffic school for an hour sometime in the next two weeks and get the whole thing expunged from my record, which might be good for my auto insurance premiums.
Or I could go to trial, where I would either win and pay nothing, or I would lose and pay the full fine and up to $700 in court costs. He didn't say, but I thought, I could be my own lawyer and have the proverbial fool for a client, or I could hire an attorney and pay him or her a lot more than my fine. Not that I have the time or money for that. So I chose the "plea in abeyance," paid the reduced fine and the traffic school fee, and said something (as cheerfully as I could) about not being very thrilled about signing the document saying I was guilty, when I knew I was really obeying the law.
Said hearing officer is either a nice guy who is good at his job (if he really couldn't do what he said he couldn't do), or he's a smooth bureaucrat who is very good at his job (if he really could do what he said he couldn't). Lacking evidence of the latter, I'll assume the former. Either way, if one must occasionally sally forth to administrative center of Rockyland, it's nice to see competence and professionalism there.
By now, some reader is probably disgusted with my tale. After all, what right do I have to complain -- if I am complaining -- about only my second traffic citation in 27 years of driving? And am I not simply bragging -- again -- by mentioning -- again -- that it is only my second citation in 27 years of driving? I don't know. Perhaps.
(Did I remember to tell you it's only my second citation in 27 years of driving? Yes, I think I did. One other time I got off with a warning. And of course I have broken traffic laws more than three times in that period, intentionally or otherwise, without getting caught. But forgive the interruption.)
Here are the interesting points to me:
First, I can cautiously and deliberately obey the law (as quoted above), but if a police officer sees me obeying that law and decides I'm actually breaking a different law in the process, the officer's word carries more weight than mine, even though I've been driving safely since before the officer's mother was driven to the maternity ward. (No, I don't feel old.) The principle "presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" is turned upside down where traffic violations are concerned. Once that citation is issued, I am guilty unless I have concrete proof that I am not. From what the hearing officer said, I gather that the traffic court itself is equally topsy-turvy. I can see that, administratively, this is probably the only sane and manageable course, but it still grates a little in practice.
Second, I'm bemused by the fact that, if I pay some extra money and attend traffic school for an hour, they're willing to forget the whole thing. It won't go on my record. It won't be reported to my auto insurance company. It never happened, except that the legal ruling is that it did. They insist that I'm guilty, and I officially agree to act that way because it's the least expensive course of action, but they're still willing to pretend it never happened, as long as I pay up first.
If I offered cash to an officer of the court to sanitize my driving record and not tell my insurance company, that would be an illegal bribe and an attempted cover-up. But they call it a traffic school fee, not a bribe, so everything's kosher. Some would argue that this is the state being merciful. To me it looks more like revenue than mercy.
My Upcoming First (and Last) Day of (Traffic) School
If there's anything to tell, I'll tell you how traffic school goes. It may not be a new experience for all my readers, but it will for me. (Did I mention that this was only my second . . . oh, never mind.) I wonder if it will be anything like my driver ed class in Idaho, when I was 14 (then the legal driving age there). Will they show us gory movies? What will my fellow students be like? Will my teacher be witty? Morose? Robotic? Will there be a test and a grade? A teacher evaluation? Homework? Group therapy? Aversion therapy? Aroma therapy? (I'm betting on that one.) Will there be other bloggers there?
Truth be told, I'm actually a lot less curious about traffic school than I sound. But stay tuned anyway. You never know what might happen, or what I might write, whether anything happens or not.
Copyright 2007 by David Rodeback.