Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe) Guest Blogger
“Nobody is in charge.”
“Low and middle level bureaucrats have no power to make anything happen. The only way they can have any sense of personal worth and power comes from their ability to obstruct.”
– Dr. Dwight W. Allen, Dean Emeritus, College of Education, University of Mass., Amherst.
In 1971, I was having lunch with Dr. Dwight Allen. The conversation was wide ranging, but he has strong views on educational institutions, school boards, why irate parents are irate and making institutions more accountable. At that time the Vietnam war was dragging on, and his views on entrenched power structures applied to our difficulty extricating ourselves from that as well. He co-authored American Schools: The $100 Billion Challenge, with one of his former doctoral students, Dr. William H. Cosby. You may have heard of Dr. Cosby.
Some people use the term “bureaucrat” as an epithet. When George Wallace ran for President in 1972, he railed against “bureaucrats,” saying he was going to take all their briefcases and throw them into the Potomac. Wallace conveniently ignored the fact as Governor of Alabama, he was in charge of a huge bureaucracy that had exactly the same problems he said he was going to fix.
Decades ago, Dr. Laurence Peter pointed out that all organizations with a hierarchical management structure are bureaucracies. Dr. Peter analyzed those structures, and reported many of the same issues Dr. Allen shared with me over lunch. He coined the term, “Peter Principle” to describe how otherwise competent people rise through the ranks until they achieve their “level of incompetence.”
Recently, we see those observations applying to people who are caught up in a Kafkaesque drama at city hall and municipal traffic courts. Public officials and offices are not the only culprits. There are countless tales of woe from people trying to deal with big banks, mortgage companies and faceless collection agencies. Those are problems likely to have more direct effect on us personally than global events in Washington, London or Kabul.
Let’s take the case of Capt. Dave. Dave Petrich, of West Seattle, WA mostly navigates boats around the Puget Sound area rather than vehicles with wheels; hence’ his nickname, “Capt. Dave.” The good captain restores old wooden schooners and runs maritime-history tours. As he put it, “I like to put old boats back to work.”
A few years ago, Capt. Dave founded Seattle’s first modern floating farmers’ market, which he named FarmBoat. Then he hammer fell. Not from the health department. No, the bombshell came from traffic enforcement. Seems that Dave was accused of accumulating too many traffic tickets to the tune of $8,000 and counting. The catch is, the tickets are not from anything Dave did, but were accumulated by a vagabond who was a off-and-on vendor at FarmBoat, and who sometimes helped out with a few chores. The city of Seattle had been trying find the scofflaw for some time, but since they couldn’t catch him, they targeted Dave and FarmBoat instead. Dave got a demand letter from the city’s debt collection department demanding he garnishee the vendor’s wages. The problem is, the vendor is not an employee. Dave has no employees. The man whose vehicle was ticketed only rents space to sell produce, and often pays his stall rental fee in extra produce. Also, when he got the demand letter to garnishee the vendor’s wages, it was after market season and the FarmBoat was closed. The only response he has gotten so far is that he needs to pay the fines “he” owes for all those parking tickets. FarmBoat has a blog with a timeline for the sordid story.
Dave thought, mistakenly, that a couple of phone calls explaining he had no employees, and has no control at all over the private affairs of vendors who sell produce at the FarmBoat farmers market would do the trick. That worked, right? Wrong. The city manager blames Dave for the mess, claiming the city has no responsibility for their continued harassment of him and ruining his business. The city continues to pursue their claim, having placed a lien on both the FarmBoat and Capt. Dave personally, effectively shutting down the farmer’s market. The city won’t back down. The city manager has accused Dave of not cooperating when he refused the collection department offer to settle for $500. Quite a deal for a guy who drives a boat and not a car. Five hundred bucks to pay somebody else’s traffic tickets.
I have written before here on how difficult it is to deal with some banks and mortgage holders. Homeowners have had their homes foreclosed and sold at auction, despite the fact the home is fully paid for and they have never done business with the lender who foreclosed on them. In one case, Bank of America foreclosed on a house for which the owners had paid cash. It is next to impossible to find anyone who will even apologize, much less authorize restitution.
In Unicoi County, TN, a local man had his pickup truck stolen. He reported it stolen and bulletins went out to all law enforcement agencies across the country. Eventually, the truck was found in Texas and returned to him. The truck was not the only thing returned to him. He received a traffic ticket in the mail for a traffic camera violation while the truck was stolen. It was a traffic-cam ticket from the City of Knoxville, TN. The thief had been photographed by a traffic cam while speeding in that city. The crime victim contacted the Knoxville traffic enforcement office, only to be told he needed to pay his fine. His explanation and offer of proof the truck thief did it was ignored. He continued to try and talk with anyone who would talk with him, but all he got was that he needed to pay the ticket or additional penalties would be added. I have been told the thief’s speeding ticket would also add points to his driver’s license, an additional victimization. He was at the point of being ready to give up and admit defeat when he ran into the sheriff one day. He explained the situation to the sheriff, who told him to not pay the ticket yet, but to let him handle it.
Exactly what transpired next is not quite clear, but the sheriff called someone in Knox County, telling them in no uncertain terms they had better make the ticket go away. The ticket was dropped immediately. I don’t know about other areas, but traffic cams in our area are operated by a company in Arizona. Because misdemeanors are involved, they are out of reach of local courts and cannot be sued. Whenever there is a dispute, local authorities simply refer the person getting the ticket to the camera company.
The problem was getting so bad, the State Legislature considered a bill requiring traffic camera operations in the state must have corporate headquarters and all their image processing equipment inside the state. Not surprisingly, a great deal of money was thrown at the bill to defeat it. A recent court decision determined that thousands of bogus tickets were issued to people making legal right turns on red. The camera companies objected, as did municipalities who lost significant revenue.
Has this kind of thing ever happened to you, and if so, how did you deal with it? Anyone have any suggestions on the best way to deal with these kinds of situations, where it is next to impossible to find anyone in charge able or willing to correct it? Legal of course. Shooting people or beating them up may provide temporary satisfaction, but will get you talked about by the neighbors.