politics,  the ethical life

Thoughts about justice inspired by a town council meeting

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I’m going over a town council meeting video to write a news story about it as a favor to my dad, the editor of a weekly newspaper. Every time I do this I am in awe again of all the ethical implications that get dealt with on a regular basis by our municipal politicians. It is so easy to overlook municipal politics.

The first issue of debate is a bylaw regarding the parking of recreational vehicles and whether they can be just parked on the front lawn or whether they require a solid surface below them. Someone asks if this is discriminatory towards those without paved driveways, and they clarify that a gravel area is sufficient. This is about recreational vehicles, so perhaps discrimination based on wealth doesn’t matter as much as if it was about something that was not a luxury item. In effect a bylaw like this, like a building code, just adds to the expense of that item.

Someone described the bylaw as protecting people from having their neighbour park a dilapidated RV on the lawn with weeds growing all around it. But what, I wonder, about the same dilapidated RV on a gravel driveway. What makes that ok? Is it all about the possibility of weeds growing around it? The possibility of the lawn being destroyed?

The bylaw is enforced on a complaint basis and right now all complaints can be anonymous. Should people have to attach their name to a complaint? That could reduce complaints, but it also means that the bylaw only are enforced when someone feels confident risking his or her neighbour’s anger. If people can complain anonymously then the town sort of serves as a buffer, enforcing the rules without blaming/outing those who try to get the rules enforced. Requiring people to put their names on the complaint could be seen as cowardly on the town’s part, like they’re blaming the neighbour for the reason the bylaw needs to be enforced rather than taking responsibility for the fact they passed the bylaw. If the town is acting in just, fair ways it should not matter who brings the complaint forward and if the town is not acting appropriately then that needs to be solved rather than blaming the person who made the complaint.

Conversation became more heated when some of the councilors realized that the bylaw also prohibits people staying in campers parked on their residential lots. Apparently some councilors have family and friends who do this regularly and they are concerned to rework the bylaw to make what people do legal. Interestingly one can camp on the street over night – as long as one leaves the vehicle attached to the camper – because then the issue is parking bylaws rather than RV storage bylaws. Can they limit the use of electrical wires strung over the sidewalk to provide electricity to such campers, as those provide tripping hazards? Perhaps, but then they would have to decide if they will provide an exemption for electrical wires used to plug cars in during the winter, without which many people would be unable to start their vehicles. And why, if an exemption can be made for one of those, should it not be made for the other?

The issue that strikes me as strangest is the question of enforcement. Someone in the meeting called for flexible enforcement. I think what they mean is, they don’t want the bylaw enforced unless something becomes a serious problem. They want the town to overlook their friends and family. My instinct is to distrust flexibility of enforcement. I don’t trust those doing the enforcement. I worry they could privilege their friends over others. I worry it could be enforced harsher against minorities or people who irk others. I want rules clearly defined. What makes it a problem?

It reminds me of the 15th century story I’ve been reading, Grisel and Mirabella. In that story the king sentences his own daughter to death. The queen pleads for mercy, but the king says no, he has promoted justice all his life and he will not show partiality now. The queen says it is not justice, it is cruelty. In that case, by our standards, it is cruelty. He was enforcing an unjust law and a decision from a bias court. However, it brings up the question of when it is justice to grant pardons or spare individuals based on special circumstances and when it is unjust to do so. To spare a violent man from suffering the consequences of his action because he has good future earning potential is unjust, is it not? Yet others would say that is showing mercy.

There is a West Wing episode that talks about mandatory minimum sentencing. It also points out the unfairness of politicians getting their kids out of drug charges. Flexibility tends to be used to favor those who have power and connections. Yet it also argues against mandatory minimums. It portrays that as unjust because the mandatory minimums tend to be set higher for drugs minorities use and lower for drugs white people use. It argues judges should be able to use discretion, just better discretion.

Which way do you lean? Do you prefer to have rules set out and enforced? What makes flexibility acceptable and what makes it unacceptable?

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