Saturday, February 13, 2010

Who Will Protect Us From Our Protectors?

Consider the following: Driving down a road with no posted speed limit, another motorist races past you. A block away you are pulled over and cited for speeding. You ask the speed limit, and the officer says, "Whatever I say it is. Today you were exceeding it."

The next day you drive slower, but are again cited. Day after day, no matter your speed, you are ticketed. Then you are sued by home owners along your route, who cite your accumulating tickets as evidence of a threat to their children. Your insurance company cancels your policy and you are fired from your job as a truck driver.

This may sound arbitrary and absurd, and it is. But this is the nightmare under which many businesses must now operate pursuant to the city's nuisance ordinance and its enforcement by the White administration.

Under the ordinance, city officials are given wide discretion as to what constitutes a nuisance. Odors are one example. The city has established no standards by which to determine if an odor is a nuisance. Consequently, inspectors take no measurements when they receive an odor complaint. The complaint alone is considered sufficient evidence, and the alleged source is cited.

By such arbitrary standards, any Houstonian can launch a complaint against any other citizen, and city officials will issue a citation. By such arbitrary standards, the whim of a disgruntled neighbor or an unhappy employee can result in a violation of the law. By such arbitrary standards, virtually any activity can be declared a nuisance. This is what Bill White--who sought more power under the nuisance ordinance--has unleashed on the city.

Nuisance laws can be valid, but they must be objective. The particular conditions that constitute a nuisance must be defined. The specific methods for measuring or identifying the offending activity must be clearly stated. As an example of a proper ordinance, the city code defines the acceptable decibel level of noise, how it is to be measured, and the times of day those levels apply. Such standards and methods are nowhere to be found in the code addressing odors.

For decades the city has made no secret of its desire to regulate land-use. While voters have rejected zoning three times, city officials have continued to seek other means to control land-use in the city, including restrictions on sexually-oriented businesses, the sign ordinance, the landscaping ordinance, controls on smoking, and now the nuisance ordinance.

The only legitimate purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. Government dictates regarding how property owners may use their land is a violation of their rights; doing so by using undefined standards is wielding arbitrary power.

The United States Constitution limits the powers of government. The nuisance ordinance does the exact opposite--it grants to city officials virtually unlimited powers to control the activities of individuals. If someone complains that your property use is a nuisance, city officials regard that complaint alone as sufficient evidence. If they receive "too many" complaints--and they will arbitrarily decide how many is “too many”--they may seek to close your business.

If you think that this is hyperbole, ask the owners of the El Rondo Motor Lodge, The Penthouse Club, or CES Environmental Services. Each of these businesses--as well as many others--were targeted by the White administration and subjected to ongoing harassment with the express purpose of shutting them down. Harassment of businesses will not likely cease merely because White is now trying to spread his tactics throughout the state--his henchmen remain at the helm of many city departments.

Today the city is aiming its guns at "outcast" businesses--hot sheet" hotels, sexually--oriented businesses, and industrial waste processors. Tomorrow it could be your neighborhood pub, or the convenience store down the street, or any number of businesses. Today the city is targeting unpopular businesses; tomorrow it could be you.

Any Houstonian who values his freedom should demand that city officials disclose their methods and procedures for enforcing the nuisance ordinance. Anything less leaves us all under a constant threat.

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