Tuesday, December 23, 2008

We Want You to be Safe...Really

A few years ago a city inspector came by my office. He asked to see my Occupancy Permit, which I did not have. He informed me that I was required to have such a permit in order to legally use my rental space. He then scheduled an inspection of the facility so that I could obtain permission to use my office.

At the time, I had been renting this space for approximately fifteen years. The space consists of about eight hundred square feet of offices, and another four hundred square feet of warehouse. One person--my wife--is in the office all day, and I am there periodically throughout the day. Many days go by with nobody else (except perhaps the mailman) stepping foot inside our office.

The purported purpose of the Occupancy Permit is to insure that employees and customers will be in a safe environment. Customers do not visit our office, which means, I was required to obtain an Occupancy Permit for the purpose of protecting my wife's safety! I do not recall her ever making an issue of her safety at the office, but if she has (or does), I will certainly address it without needing the City of Houston involved.

When inspection day arrived, five city inspectors showed up. There was an electrical inspector, a mechanical inspector, a plumbing inspector, and a Fire Marshall (if I recall correctly). I do not remember the purpose of the fifth individual, but if experience is any indication, he was an inspector of the inspectors.

Several weeks later we received a report detailing our various violations. Most of the items were mundane--a light was out, our bathroom fan wasn't big enough, etc. However, our most egregious transgression was the lack of signage--we did not have a sign on the door stating "This door must remain open during business hours", nor did we have a sign over the door stating "Exit".

This last item illustrates just how silly city ordinances can be. As I said, I had been renting this space for about fifteen years. There is only one door. I recognized that it was the exit after using it as the entrance. For fifteen years I used that door as an exit without the benefit of a sign telling me so. But for some reason, the city thought that my safety was imperilled because I did not have a sign to remind me how to exit the office. And I could not get an Occupancy Permit without that sign.

Adding to the inanity, the city gave me eighteen months to correct these various items. Which means, even though my safety was allegedly in question because of the lack of signage, the city was willing to allow me to continue working in such an unsafe environment for a year and a half. That really made me wonder if my safety was their real concern. But since it was the government, and I know that they wouldn't have ulterior motives such as money and power, I accepted their explanation (I am being sarcastic).

After laughing at this report, I filed it away and forgot about it. But in a rare display of competency, about sixteen months later the city sent me a notice warning me that my time was running out. I concluded that perhaps they were serious and I should take some action. In the end, it cost me nearly $1,200 to bring our space into compliance (and this was with my landlord paying a portion of the bill--he had nearly fifty other tenants going through the same thing). We then had to call the inspectors out again to verify that we had met their demands. Several weeks later I was informed that I could drive downtown for the privilege of writing another check and getting my certificate.

The entire experience was annoying and inconvenient. For fifteen years nobody had been injured or become ill because of the conditions in my office. Yet, the city was willing to make me a criminal if I did not allow their goons to parade through my office and make demands. They would have revoked my right to do business because I did not have a piece of paper stating that they had granted me permission to put a phone and computer in a rental space.

In the grand scope of things, the time and money involved was insignificant. But in principle, it was very significant. Rather than allowing me to act by right, the city forced me to seek permission. Rather than allow me to determine whether my office was safe, the city usurped that decision. And this is precisely what all regulations and inappropriate laws do--they remove decision making capabilities.

Regulations dictate action, either through proscription or prescription. They dictate the actions an individual may take, regardless of his own judgment. They render an individual's judgment irrelevant.

I do not feel any safer because I have an Occupancy Permit. In fact, I feel a little less safe, because I never know when some government official will descend upon me and make further demands. But I have devised a plan that might help. Despite the sign they made me put on the door, we usually keep it locked.

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