Ignorance is Bliss?
Ron Bolin, April 12, 2011
The email exchange below has led me to some pretty scary contemplation of the slippery legal slope on which we are all so delicately balanced:
Yes you heard correctly. The City has no obligation to enforce its bylaws.
This is true even if the City is aware of an infraction.
Failure to enforce a bylaw has no implication (in law at least) to any future enforcement ability.
From: Ron Bolin [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: March 24, 2011 1:36 PM
To: Al Kenning
Good afternoon Al:
I am trying to remember something that you said to Council at the end of either a Council Meeting or a Public Hearing. If memory serves, in speaking to Council on the matter of bylaws, you noted that the city was not obliged to enforce its bylaws. Did I hear correctly and if so, could you explain?
Naïve as I apparently am, Mr. Kenning’s response set me back on my heels. I suppose that I have not given sufficient attention to what it is that really makes the world go around. Further contemplation, analysis, comparison and research, has set me mostly straight and certainly given me cause for alarm.
This question came to light some months ago when it was noted in a FPCOW meeting that, despite complaints about some signs in town which contravened the Sign Bylaw, Council had advised Staff to ignore those complaints. This stimulated my interest in this topic and began a process which eventually led to my request from Mr. Kenning.
My reaction to his response was to start to ask myself how this could be. I first got as far as the complaint process. It became evident why most bylaws depend on the complaint process rather than the active pursuit of infractions. It is a bit like the old question of whether, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound? If an infraction occurred and nobody complained, was a crime committed? If, for example, I was robbed, but for whatever reason make no complaint, was a crime committed? And from a panel of judges: If an 85 year old great grandmother with no criminal record is held by a store for shoplifting and the police officer at the scene in the light of the situation lets her go with a stern warning, was a crime committed?
In this context is it only when the governing body, in this case the City, is itself offended by, for example, the non-payment of taxes or some other such infraction which affects itself that it becomes a complainant on its own behalf, but feels no compulsion to act on infractions affecting its citizens, even on complaint? Are the complaints of citizens of lesser significance and can thus be ignored, even if they do complain? The answer seems to be yes.
As Saturday, April 9 was Law Day, the celebration of which included a Q&A opportunity with a panel of judges, I took the opportunity to raise the question with them. They concurred with Mr. Kenning’s response. Upon reflection, I suppose that given free will, there is no other answer possible. But what is it them than separates a law abiding society from one in which chaos, usually guided by unchecked personal interests, prevails? We say we are a nation of laws, but so are all of the third world countries in which I have lived. In some one can find just as much justice as he or she can afford. The difference is in the hearing. The tree may fall; the crime may occur; but if the forest of citizens either doesn’t hear or doesn’t follow up on those vibrations, there is no sound and no crime. Think about it. Think about how small is the difference between the society we enjoy and anarchy.
A further interesting example can be found in a clause included in a student housing agreement which the city recently approved:
“The parties agree that the City is not obligated to inspect the Lands or to otherwise
ensure compliance with this Agreement, nor is the City obligated to remedy any default
of this Agreement. A failure by the City to enforce this Agreement shall not constitute a
waiver of any of the City’s rights hereunder.”
Nudge, nudge, wink, wink….
Remember that phrase from Animal House: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Consider what happens when the notion of justice is overwhelmed by the law and those who generate and administer it. Do your homework and get out and VOTE. Your representatives at all levels not only make the rules, they can also choose to ignore them at your peril.