Drinking up democracy
Dear Ol’ Dad — the Ol’ Thing’s Ol’ Editor of more than a decade ago — had more than his share of sayings. Among his favorites was that no matter how thin you fry it, there will always be two sides to every pancake.
Mega-corporations make mega-riches off an unwitting public by encouraging us to divide into camps and argue on social media as if every issue had exactly two sides.
Real issues, however, often have many more, and one of the extra sides typically is the one we should be paying closest attention to.
No better example could emerge than last week’s debate over whether a downtown Marion hat shop should or shouldn’t be allowed to serve beer.
After the city council ordered an investigation, small but determined handfuls of business supporters took to social media to castigate the council, the community, and even this newspaper as anti-business, anti-innovation, and basically anti-anything that this small group, made up largely of people who don’t even live in Marion, seems to want.
Yes, there’s a valid point about businesses needing to adapt to a modern age in which younger people in particular seem overly concerned about creature comforts and indulgences like being able to drink while shopping.
Yes, there’s a valid point about whether Marion, reeling from drug and alcohol crime, really needs a third drinking establishment within a one-block radius that coincidentally includes a church.
There’s even a valid point about whether the establishment’s initial request — to be able to offer a customer a beer while waiting —misrepresented an attempt to open an honest-to-goodness bar.
All these miss the real point, however. Neither the beer-lovers nor the teetotalers — not even the business owner — should be blamed for uncertainty over whether the business can continue to sell beer.
The problem rests squarely with the city — and not necessarily the council. By once again wanting to approve things by winks and nods rather than proper procedure, it learned the hard way that taking an easy path often leads to hard feelings later on.
One of the key things that sets our society apart is not that people get to be heard. Even dictators listen to the people, and the people on their own in a pure democracy are far from infallible.
Our unique quality is what long-winded speakers have come to call the rule of law. We don’t do what’s popular or what powers-that-be might want. We create rules, then follow them, and eventually — if needed — change them rather than ignore them.
No one is expected to know every rule by heart, so no one can fault the business owner or even part-time council members who granted her initial license.
However, city officials — everyone from attorney to clerk to administrator to chiefs — should have known to check the regulations before even considering the initial request.
Among the things those rules require is 10 days’ notice before a request can be considered, then a public hearing at which concerned citizens might speak.
Even before that, other rules have to be met. An establishment must have two well-equipped restrooms, one for men and one for women, and must have continuously unlocked and separate front and rear exits.
Some may regard the rules as unnecessary. But like most rules, they came about because of serious problems in the past.
The rules also require a background check by the police chief, an inspection by the fire chief, and a visit from the city’s health officer, which the city may not even have.
Those aren’t state or federal laws. They’re city laws. And it’s unclear whether any of the necessary steps were performed or even considerable before — wink, wink, nod, nod — the initial application was approved.
The council, despite some members seeming peeved about possibly having been misled, hasn’t weighed in yet on teetotaler vs. beer-guzzler debate.
Rather, it is simply and rightfully insisting that these checks and other ignored steps — like getting permission from the nearby church and perhaps getting a conditional use permit, establishing limits that state law seems to say are necessary — be performed.
Action taken with a wink and a nod may be more efficient and popular than following the rule of law. But such actions invariably seem to end up with problems, like the one with Dan Dr. at Marion County Lake.
Building a road where it was platted to be might have cost more than simply allowing the road to meander outside its right of way through private property. But now the county needs to figure out how to get out of the mess created by that particular wink and nod.
We probably will be labeled old-fashioned, out of touch, or even worse for suggesting it, but now is the time to stop vilifying attempts to follow rules and work within the rules to achieve what we want — or get rid of the rules if they truly are outmoded.
When rules don’t address concerns, as with worries over container housing in Hillsboro, it’s time to change them, not time to figure out a way to work around them. That’s a lesson Marion still needs to learn while debating what to do with its non-industrial industrial park.
The downtown hat shop has done us a favor — showing us that bureaucrats who attempt only to make everyone happy end up leaving more people sad. Now it’s time to put that lesson into practice.
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified Jan. 20, 2022