Okay, folks, get comfortable. This is going to take a while. Not nearly as long a while as Tuesday's three-hour Bellevue Council meeting, but there's a whole lot of muddy ground to be covered once your brain thaws out from that experience.
First, let's take a look at the proposed sign ordinance. Why, in the name of all that is legislative, would anybody think Bellevue Council should be voting on this thing? Let's just set aside the fact that it is, by many, many accounts, a crappy ordinance. The language is soft and vague, leaving much to interpretation, not to mention legal challenge. Let's even set aside the fact that this ordinance has magically appeared from somewhere other than a standing committee of council, which plays havoc with its movement through the legislative process.
Instead, let's ask the real question here...What the hell are you doing??? About a decade ago Bellevue joined with Avalon and Ben Avon to draft the state's very first comprehensive zoning plan, and subsequently a JOINT zoning code. Bellevue turned over the matter of zoning -- which most definitely includes signage -- to this group. There is a joint planning commission. There is a joint zoning hearing board. Bellevue doesn't get to run off on its own and make up its own zoning laws.
Apparently the plan in Bellevue is to adopt a signage ordinance as something other than a zoning law, which, of course, it is not. Want to know how well that works? Avalon tried the same thing with a "parking ordinance" a year or so ago, and you can gauge how successful it was by driving down Florence Avenue and looking at all the cars parked in people's front yards, which is precisely what they were hoping to avoid.
Now, if Bellevue wants to go it alone, well, open the checkbook and the zoning map, and go right ahead. Instead of grant funds paying the cost of experts to draft a new comprehensive plan, Bellevue can cough up the money itself. And the zoning map will have to be changed to allow for every noxious use under the sun, because they no longer will be able to be spread across several communities.
Or, Bellevue officials could quit being stupid, turn the matter over to the joint planning commission -- which has ALWAYS accommodated the needs of the individual boroughs -- and save everyone a whole lot of time, money and trouble.
Now, let's turn to the matter of ethics. Exactly how ethical is it to level unsubstantiated charges of ethics violations at a fellow council member? The teensiest bit of research would produce the information that the state ethics commission -- made up of the people who kinda know more about these things than just about everyone else in the state -- has said very, very clearly that elected officials are allowed -- indeed required -- to vote on matters that affect their own interests when those matters also affect a whole bunch of other people as well.
If this was not the case, nobody would ever be able to vote on anything. Property tax rates would stay the same forever, because no one who owns property would be able to vote on the matter. No one with school-age children would ever be able to vote on most of the matters that come before a school board.
The issue of ethics raised by Henry Lenard at Tuesday's council meeting concerned the fact that Linda Woshner owns rental property, and therefore should have no say in what fees are charged for rental property inspections. Clearly, the fees are paid by many, many more people than just Woshner. Is that not a big enough group to avoid a conflict of interest? Exactly what is the cut-off point? Half the population must be affected? A third? And what happens to the suddenly unrepresented portion of the population, just because the voters actually elected someone who knew something about anything?
If we have any sense, we elect people to office precisely because of the particular set of skills they have, not in spite of it. We want people who will bring their particular areas of expertise to government. Frankly, it would be a refreshing change in Bellevue's council chambers these days.
The fact is, Woshner's professional experience in real estate and property management resulted in Bellevue officials getting a lot of information they otherwise never would have had. It would be nice if council had a broader base of knowledge about so many of the things they do.
And while we're on the subject, let's just ask why the ethics of other council members were not questioned. Other members own rental property. Other members are renters, who ultimately will pay this increased fee, not the landlords. Are the ethics of the situation based mainly on how someone is going to vote, and not on the underlying issue at all?
Finally, we need to take a look at the proposed smoking ban. Just to get it out of the way, let's all agree that smoking cigarettes is a very, very bad thing for all living creatures. It's almost as bad for you as illogical, unenforceable legislation.
The county's indoor smoking ban at least makes some sense, primarily due to its protection of employees who should not have to be exposed to cigarette smoke in order to keep their jobs. And most smokers are very polite these days. They would never think of lighting up in someone's car or house without an invitation to do so.
But outside smoking bans? Where anyone who doesn't want to be around smoke can take a couple steps in any direction and be away from the smoke? That's just one of those idiotic laws that makes elected officials feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but ultimately does nothing helpful for anyone.
There may be some benefit to making playgrounds smoke-free zones. I personally have never seen a playground covered by a cloud of cigarette smoke, but there could be some anomaly of atmospheric conditions that could make this happen. Around here, the clouds usually are comprised of vehicular fumes or pollution from Neville Island, but no one is proposing a law to keep those things away from our playgrounds.
There also is the fact that most people who are hanging around playgrounds smoking cigarettes are likely to fall into one of two categories: 1.) They are parents or grandparents who will put those kids in a car and take them to a home, both of which are likely to have a much higher concentration of smoke; or 2.) They are pedophiles lurking in the area, in which case they should be questioned and removed by police.
Bellevue could follow the lead of Allegheny County in its parks. Although it was (incorrectly) reported to Bellevue Council that the county parks are smoke-free, in fact, smoking is prohibited only in areas specifically designed for use by children, such as playground or skate park areas.
I am hoping that Bellevue's resident libertarians step up to weigh in on this one. I think a "smoke-in" in front of the borough building would be an excellent way to draw attention to this matter. They could give away free cigars.
But an even better point was made by council member Lynn Tennant Heffley. If police can't stop people from being disorderly or smoking dope in the parks, how are they going to stop cigarette smokers? My question is, why would we want to utilize police resources in this way? If Bellevue has enough police officers to spare to babysit smokers, maybe Bellevue has too many police officers.
I could go on and on about the other matters discussed at the Bellevue Council meeting, but I'm starting to get a bit too uncomfortable. Hopefully, you are, too.