Balusters and Bureaucrats
Having purchased an old house, a friend of mine, John, was informed that the house had a number of code violations. Specifically, the railing on the porch, at only twenty-one inches, fell considerably short of the city's required forty-two. This is a safety issue, he was told. Apparently, in 1901, when the house was built, children were only half the size that they are now -- or perhaps twice as aware of their surroundings. In any case, he was going to have to replace the porch railings.
So he did. He found a carpenter, who lathed out new balusters in the same style, which was expensive. John could have purchased ready-made uprights, but it was important to him to keep the porch looking as it had. It was while the balusters were being installed that the trouble started.
The trouble arrived in the form of Joyce, a representative of the Historic Preservation Society. She had noticed that the old balusters had been removed from the porch and was, she said, surprised that her office hadn't been informed. John didn't see why he should have to inform anybody that he was bringing his home up to code, and he told her so.
John isn't entirely diplomatic. One might characterize his attitude as dismissive, but since he really did want Joyce to go away, such an attitude seemed appropriate. It did not seem so to Joyce, who didn't care to be casually rebuffed in her efforts. She began to make her case.
The house, as I said, was built in 1901. Up until the year 2000, the previous owners could have done anything they wanted to it, including improving the porch to meet code requirements. But in the year 2001, the house turned 100 years old. The Historic Preservation Society took an interest, and voilà: here was Joyce, trying to exert some authority over John's property.
While Joyce recognized that the porch was not up to code, her only solution was to replace the balusters in their original style and height and add an additional railing at the prescribed level. John declined this suggestion. The carpenter, who had stopped in his work and was listening to this exchange, was informed that he should continue, and Joyce was informed that the code enforcement officer would be on site the following week to certify that the dangerous porch railing had been replaced. John invited Joyce to meet with him then, although the nature of the invitation left no room for doubt that her presence was not eagerly anticipated.
When Roger, the code enforcement officer, arrived the following Tuesday, it became clear that Joyce had been lurking nearby, for she arrived hard on his heels. She again stated her case, which John had already heard and rejected and which was of no interest to Roger whatsoever.
After measuring the height of the railing, Roger was ready to sign off on the improvements. Joyce persisted. Roger still did not care and explained that his concern was simply certifying the improvements. John then inquired as to the repercussions of ignoring the building codes. Roger informed him that a fine of $500.00 could be levied each month, and the building could be deemed uninhabitable. John then asked Joyce what the repercussions of ignoring her demands. When he was informed that she could issue only a single fine of $200.00, John wrote a check, handed it to her, and asked her to leave.
In a perfect world, this would be the end of the story. John was happy that his home was inhabitable, consistent with the code, and still exhibiting the style that he had first found attractive. Roger had done his job, which consisted of taking a couple of measurements, but which we can assume will spare untold numbers of incautious children and intoxicated adults from pitching off the porch. The carpenter earned his pay and later got a recommendation when another friend of John's was looking to have some windows fitted. Sweetness and light all about, one would guess.
But this story includes a minor-level bureaucrat who had been spurned. At the next meeting in City Hall, Joyce stood to speak to the councilors. She might have pointed out that the regulations of two city agencies were at odds, and that some clarification was in order. But she didn't. She might have suggested a review board capable of making a ruling when two different mandates conflicted. She didn't do that, either. What she desired of the City Council was the authority to fine homeowners $500.00 per month.
To Joyce, and the other one million, eight hundred thousand civil servants in America, the problem isn't that there are too many regulations, and those too contradictory, that overburden the citizen who attempts to comply. The problem is that one agency enjoys a prerogative some other agency does not -- that agencies are not equal in their ability to coerce. Since the real problem -- the reconciliation of contradictory regulations -- was never addressed, the next move is almost certainly that Roger will seek his own privilege to impose greater fines.
Though our politicians are constantly in the spotlight, it's these little exchanges that truly make all the difference. More than anything, it's these petty bureaucratic arms races that impact our daily lives, punish the citizen, degrade privacy, and erode the value of personal property.