The city government of Searcy, where I currently have the pleasure to live, often makes choices that are highly unusual. Very few elections go by without our city officials placing a tax increase proposal on the ballot — or sometimes they just ram tax increases through on their own say-so, without the consent of the people. A few years ago, they passed an ordinance to regulate yard sales (an ordinance that appeared, in part, to be motivated by racial prejudice). If you have more than two yard sales per quarter, you could be fined by the city. In addition, all yard sale items are subject to inspection — only certain types of items are permissible, and parking, signs, and the display of sale items is also regulated. Not too long ago, the city passed an ordinance that required citizens (and lawn companies) to clean grass clippings out of the street. Apparently that — not a lack of 21st century infrastructure — is what’s causing all of our draining problems. If the city’s code enforcement officer finds clippings in front of your house or business, you can face fines. They’ve even considered a sign ordinance, requiring registration and a fee for real estate and other temporary signs. (I realize many other cities have these types of ridiculous laws, but that doesn’t make them any less ridiculous.)
The Searcy City Council is full of classic nanny-staters: if they see a problem in the city — or someone complains about something — they’ll be on it in no time, proposing an ordinance that attempts to cure all of the city’s ills. In one sense, this is admirable. Of course we want public officials who will be responsive to the people they are supposed to represent. When they want to, this council demonstrates that desired responsiveness. However, like most nanny-state politicians, their instincts are generally off the mark. Their eagerness to “solve problems” almost always results in 1. Bigger government, 2. Higher costs to taxpayers, and 3. A myriad of unintended consequences, often simply because they are too bull-headed to slow down and hear opposing viewpoints or criticisms that might strengthen their policies. Also to be noted: their targeted problems are rarely as severe as they, or the local newspaper, will lead you to believe. Generally they’re spawned by one or two calls to City Hall by influential members of the community and, before you know it, city government is treating a few grass clippings like Armageddon. (Never let a good crisis go to waste, I suppose.)
The latest crisis that needs the city council’s immediate and unimpeded attention? Nefarious door-to-door salesmen, roaming the streets of Searcy, armed with predatory solicitations. Once one of these people knocks at your door, in the blink of an eye you might find that you have purchased some sinister good or service — like carpet cleaner or a magazine subscription. The city’s solution? A “Green River Ordinance” that would prohibit door-to-door solicitation. (Here’s a sample draft of the ordinance that the mayor sent me.)
I contacted Searcy Mayor David Morris for comment. He declined to answer, and instead passed the questions off to City Attorney Bucky Gibson.
My first question was, “What problem is this ordinance intended to solve?” The city attorney — an advisor to the city council, not a policymaker — told the mayor, who told me:
Intended to protect people in their homes from unwanted intrusions while going about their daily affairs and while they might be sleeping, eating, or enjoying time with their family. This would be consistent with a “do not call list.” Absent the home owner seeking out information from the vendor, this would prohibit the vendor from bothering the homeowner. This would, further, protect citizens from violations of federal law from in-home solicitation’s three day right to rescind a contract.
Would local businessmen be able to apply for permits in order to continue to solicit business, and what exemptions will be offered?
Not as drafted. The exemptions would apply to religious and not-for-profit organizations and political campaigning.
Politicians are exempt? Why, of course! But if you’re a door-to-door salesman in Searcy, the city government is about to put you out of business.
Next, how will this ordinance be enforced and what penalties will be attached to it?
It will be enforced in the manner that other ordinances are enforced in Searcy. The draft will provide for penalties ranging from $100 to $250 per violation, with the amount to be set by the District Court.
Enforced in the same manner as other ordinances? That seems like a bit of a lazy answer. Obviously there are some logistical problems with enforcing ordinance like this, as opposed to an ordinance that simply says you cannot have unicorns in your front yard.
Lastly, is this ordinance constitutional? Do cities have the authority to tell private citizens that they cannot go onto another private citizens’ property?
We do not offer opinions in the manner requested. The action of the City would be presumed to be constitutional. Cities have the right to regulate and maintain the peace, health, safety, and welfare of citizens and entities wishing to engage in commerce within the City. The authority of the City of Searcy to adopt ordinances providing for the peace, health, safety, and welfare of its citizens is found in Ark. Code Ann. Ss. 14-43-501, and following, and 14-43-601, and following.
Presumed to be constitutional? Well, that’s helpful.
This proposed law represents nanny-statism at its worst, and there are a lot of unanswered questions that deserve answers before the city proceeds. Constitutional questions aside — since the city isn’t interested in discussing those — shouldn’t it be up to a private property owner who they want to allow on their property? Do we really need the city government trying to enforce this law, stretching our city law enforcement (which we are always told is understaffed and overworked) even thinner? Is this law even enforceable? If it is constitutional, is it necessary? Since ignorance of the law is no excuse, what’s to happen to those who are unaware of this new policy? Will the city prosecute them?
I hope the city council will slow down and take some time to consider these important questions. Their decisions, whether they realize it or not, very often negatively affect this city. Unfortunately, if history is any indication, the city council will likely ram this thing through (if they decide that’s what they want to do) before there is time for much public scrutiny. They will meet tonight for their “pre-council” meeting at 5:00 at Searcy City Hall. The door-knocking ban is on the agenda.