Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fanning the Flames: Fire Welfare in San Diego

Although the recriminations have already started, there doesn’t seem to be much question that no amount of resources could have initially stopped the wind-whipped fires that are still ravaging a sizeable chunk of Southern California. With tinder dry conditions and howling Santa Ana winds, Mother Nature was going to have her way with the Southland whether folks liked it or not. People were going to be injured or killed, habitat was going to be destroyed, and structures were going to be lost. Period.

That having been said, there does seem to be legitimate questions about San Diego County’s fire preparedness and the adequacy of its fire fighting resources. And along with the answers to those questions comes annoyance, even anger. Annoyance that San Diego County is one of the few major metropolitan counties in the nation without its own fire department. Annoyance that the City of San Diego has just one firefighting helicopter and 975 firefighters to protect 330 square miles and 1.3 million residents. Annoyance that suburban and rural areas must rely upon volunteer fire departments because of the lack of a county fire department. Annoyance with lax or non-existent building regulations that allow homes to be situated in harms way. And finally, anger over the reason for all this silliness.

Its damn difficult to be annoyed and angry at a group of people who have just lost or been displaced from their homes, but San Diego County residents have managed to pull off this most unlikely of feats. That is because by and large, they appear to be responsible for the sorry state of San Diego County’s fire preparedness affairs. More accurately, their conservative political philosophy is responsible for San Diego County’s woeful lack of firefighting resources. San Diego County doesn’t have a fire department because its citizens don’t want a fire department. Well, it’s not necessarily that they don’t necessarily want one; they just don’t want to pay for one. Because paying for one would require some form of tax, and taxes, of course, are anathema to the cadre of small government, self-proclaimed “individualists” who predominate in San Diego County.

But if the recent conflagrations have shown us anything, it is that “rugged individualism” and unyielding faith in all things private only goes so far in San Diego County. Core conservative beliefs wilt under the intense heat of a raging wildfire. Government resources and assistance are no longer demonized. Accepting, nay expecting, government services funded by collected tax revenues is no longer the exclusive province of welfare queens driving Cadillacs and eating free cheese. Rather, it is the God given right of every upper middle class homeowner who built in fire prone areas (although it is not acknowledged as welfare and is not stigmatized as such).

Don’t get me wrong. Just like everyone else, the folks in San Diego County deserve fire fighting assistance from other sources (including federal, state and other county fire departments) when the winds begin to howl and the hills begins to burn. And in this particular case, the existence of a county fire department probably would not have made a significant difference in terms of acreage burned or structures ultimately lost. That does not mean it would have made no difference, however. And it really has a negative impact on San Diego as a fire welfare county. The utter refusal of San Diego County residents to fund their own fire department means that they must rely on other counties for fire suppression services. And ultimately, this means that the taxpayers in neighboring counties who have swallowed hard and made the financial sacrifice end up paying a disproportionate share of the price of fire protection for San Diego County when things get out of control. Certainly, given their political and philosophical proclivities, San Diego County residents would never stand for such a collectivist, cost-sharing arrangement. Too socialist for their tastes. But apparently, theirs is a complicated political philosophy under which it is better to receive than to give. Especially when you are the receiver.

DB ☼

Thursday, October 11, 2007

While we’re on the subject of immigration…

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services just released a redesigned naturalization test for those seeking to become United States citizens. The revised test is intended to emphasize “fundamental concepts of American democracy and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship” and to encourage immigrants “to learn and identify with the basic values we all share as Americans.” As was the case previously, those taking the newly revised test must correctly answer 6 of 10 randomly selected questions from a list of 100 in order to pass. At first blush, that doesn’t sound too onerous. 60%, after all, was scraping the bottom of the D barrel when I went to school.

But let’s take a look at the test. Admittedly, some of the questions are embarrassingly simple. For example:

What is the name of the national anthem?
When do we celebrate Independence Day?
What is the capital of the United States?
Name one state that borders Canada.
Name one state that borders Mexico.
What ocean is on the West coast of the United States?
What ocean is on the East coast of the United States?
Who was the first President?

If you can’t answer these questions without study, you don’t deserve citizenship.

Some of the questions, however, are a little more challenging. Not difficult mind you. But they do require that the test taker have an ability to do more than fog a mirror. For example:

How many amendments does the Constitution have?
What are two rights in the Declaration of Independence?
What is the economic system in the United States?
What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
We elect U.S. Senators for how many years?
The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
Why do some states have more representatives than others?
If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?
What are two Cabinet-level positions?
How many justices are on the Supreme Court?
Who is the Chief Justice of the United States?
Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?
What is the name of the Speaker of the House of Representatives now?
Why did the colonists fight the British?
When was the Constitution written?
The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.
What did Susan B. Anthony do?
Who was President during World War I?
Who was President during the Great Depression and World War II?
Before he was President, Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?

There are a lot of folks these days blustering about the evils of illegal immigration. They may be right, they may be wrong. I really don’t know and quite frankly, I’m not losing any sleep over it. Our economy runs on cheap labor provided by illegals of all stripes, and we all benefit from that whether we admit it or not. Illegals pick our fruits and vegetable, slaughter our beef, poultry and pork, dig our ditches, mow our lawns, slam our dishes, make our beds and wipe our kids’ asses and noses. Yeah there are costs associated with them being here, but there are costs associated with having some of our own countrymen around too. In fact, some in this latter category are probably the very same folks who have got themselves all lathered up over illegal immigration. Whatever. You have the right in this country to speak your mind, even if in doing so you come across as a rabid, xenophobic hatemonger. That’s the beauty of America.

Anyway, given their attitudes, it might be interesting to administer the new naturalization test to the anti-illegal immigration crowd to see whether these self-styled über-patriots, these supposed guardians of the American way of life, can “identify with the basic values we all share as Americans.” Based upon what I have seen, heard and read, I have my doubts.

Being the equal opportunity offender that I am, I have serious reservations about the pro-illegal immigration crowd as well. Parenthetically, I know the terms “illegal” and “illegal immigrant” are not supposed to be uttered in polite and politically correct company. But Jesus Christ people, get some thicker skin. Whether you like it or not, these folks entered this county in violation of our federal immigration laws. By definition, therefore, they are here illegally. All of your hand-wringing and semantic sleight of hand does not change that fact. So get over it and focus on more important issues.

But I digress.

Just as the anti-illegal immigration crowd cops an attitude about the subject, so too does the pro-illegal immigration crowd. Many of the folks on this side of the equation appear to believe that all immigrants are created equally. Theirs is an entitlement mentality under which the sole litmus test for citizenship is one’s ability to make it across the international border. They demand all of the rights of citizenship, but disclaim any responsibility. They want their children educated in American schools, but refuse to assimilate by learning the native language. They flood into this country because conditions are so freaking wretched in their countries of origin, yet they then support those same countries over their adopted country in diplomatic and policy skirmishes, sporting events and the like. WTF Dorothy? You ain’t in Aztlán any more.

So the question naturally arises, how many of these folks could pass the new naturalization test if it was administered to them on the spot? I’d liked to be proved wrong, but my suspicion is not many. Perhaps I’m being entirely too pessimistic about the whole affair, but like their picket waving, bullhorn toting nemeses on the other end of the sidewalk, these folks seem less interested in America the tangible than they are in America the ideal, untethered as it is from the burdens of all practical reality.


Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ruminations on the Cost of Dissent in Pleasantville (circa 2007)

It has been 15 years or so since the Rodney King case dragged Simi Valley, California kicking and screaming into the unfriendly glare of the media spotlight. You undoubtedly remember Rodney King. He was the black motorist who was beat senseless by LAPD officers who were later acquitted of their videotaped misdeeds by a predominantly white jury sitting in a Simi Valley courthouse. The jury’s verdict of acquittal was the catalyst that ignited four days of rioting, looting and general debauchery in Los Angeles and other major U.S. cities. Rightly or wrongly, it also sparked the idea that Simi Valley was nothing more than a white enclave populated primarily by cops, rednecks and bigots.

To be certain, it has been a struggle for Simi Valley to get past the Rodney King verdict. The City has been routinely mocked and pilloried because of its actual and perceived role in the Rodney King affair. But time heals all wounds, and the sting from the Rodney King case was finally starting to subside for the denizens of Simi Valley.

That is, of course, until Mayor Paul Miller decided to split open a fresh wound by thrusting the City into the midst of another, absurd controversy pregnant with racial undercurrents.

The present imbroglio arose after the membership of the United Church of Christ, a local Simi Valley church with a progressive bent, offered sanctuary to Liliana, an illegal immigrant, and her U.S. born infant son. Predictably, the Church’s action triggered a protest by the anti-illegal immigration group Save Our State; predictably this protest triggered a counter-protest; and predictably, both the protest (organized by Save Our State) and the counter-protest (not organized by the Church) required that the Simi Valley Police Department be ready and available in the event the protesters decided to not play nice.

So far, so good, or at least so normal as far as demonstrations go. But this is where it gets interesting. After the protest dust had settled, the City tallied its demonstration related expenses which totaled $39,307 in police and public works staff hours. Then, the good Mayor (with the backing of a complicit City Council) sent the bill to the United Church of Christ. That’s right. The City billed the object of the protest (the Church) for the costs of a protest which the Church did not organize, it did not want, and in which it did not participate. Apparently, the Mayor felt that the Church “invited” the protest by making known its decision to provide sanctuary to Liliana. He also made it clear that he was not happy that the Church refused to follow his directive to not make Liliana’s presence at the Church known publicly.

It is easy to be misled into believing that this is all about illegal immigration, especially if you listen to the shouting voices of Save Our State and their ilk. But the debate about illegal immigration is merely the context in which the present controversy arises. It really has nothing to do with whether the City was justified in billing the Church for the costs of the demonstration. At its core, this is about fairness, the right of expression, and the right to challenge ideas, particularly those that are unpopular. A debate about the right to debate. By sending a hefty invoice to the Church, Mayor Paul Miller has weighed in heavily and communicated very clearly that, at least in Simi Valley, these are the rules: (1) the Executive Branch of local government (read the Mayor) is all powerful, (2) refusing to accede to the all powerful Mayor’s wishes, whether sensible or not, will be immediately punished, and (3) debate is fine, but it will come at a cost to those with whom the Mayor disagrees.

So, at the end of the day, what is the take away? Well, it seems that if you are the target of a demonstration in Simi Valley, and you have in any manner “invited” protest which requires a police presence, you should be prepared to pay the Piper. You are the family of a soldier who died in Iraq and post an obituary in the local paper giving details of the time and location of funeral services? Be prepared to receive a bill from the City when Fred Phelps and his not-so-merry band of idiots shows up to make certain that you and the other funeral attendees understand that your son died because “God Hates Fags!” Say you’re the Ronald Reagan library and you host a nationally televised debate for Republican Presidential hopefuls. Not surprisingly, demonstrators of all flavors show up at the heavily fortified event. Well Mr. Mayor, under your theory, you had better be prepared to bill the Library for the extra security detail needed to control the demonstrators who were “invited” to show up. If you don’t, not only are you a partisan, but you are the worst kind of partisan: a partisan hypocrite.

I know the counter argument, but it’s a trap. It’s like staring at a solar eclipse without protection: while it is a thing of beauty to behold, in the end it will blind you. Here is how the argument goes. The Church is violating federal immigration laws by providing sanctuary to Liliana. Therefore, billing it for the security costs associated with demonstrations is justified.

But wait! Neither the Church nor its members has been found guilty of violating any laws, including federal immigration laws. As a matter of fact, it does not appear that any citations have even been issued or charges filed. So, to claim that the Mayor’s actions are justified on the basis that the Church has violated the law demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how government in this country is supposed to work. More troubling, it suggests that folks are willing to defer to the Mayor and allow him to act as judge, jury and executioner. In other words, the consolidation of power in the Executive Branch of government that we see at the federal level may have trickled down to, and gained traction at, the local level.

Even without taking into consideration the concepts of separation of powers, presumption of innocence and other constitutional inconveniences, sending a bill to the Church in this case based upon an assumed violation of the law is not only a bad precedent, but it is dangerous territory for the Mayor. For if that is the new Simi Valley standard, the Mayor may very well find himself on the receiving end of a bill if a raucous group of demonstrators decides to descend on his neighborhood. After all, the Mayor has certainly “invited” protest by his words and deeds and it is just as easy to claim that he has violated the U.S. Constitution as it is to claim that the United Church of Christ has violated federal immigration laws.

DB ☼