Last chance

I got a parking ticket this week—15 bucks for letting the parking meter expire. I saw the meter man coming down the street and scrambled to intercept him. By the time I got to him he said it was too late; he’d already hit the send key on his hand-held computer. As we talked I witnessed four or five grande-sized SUVs drive past us. “What about those?” I said pointing. “They are in violation of the law.” He looked at me quizzically over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. I explained that as of right now in this city vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds are not legally permitted to drive on non-truck routes, or about 80 percent of our streets, including the one we were standing next to. This is according to the city ordinance, which is now about to be amended to allow for trucks weighing up to 14,000 pounds to drive on our streets. The police have told the city they don’t have the resources to ticket every illegal-SUV driver. So the city is changing the law instead.

“How hard would it be for you to write tickets to the really big SUVs that are parked along our streets, like mine is here?” I asked the meter man. “Even if the meter wasn’t expired you could write them a ticket.” He said he does what he is told. I figure it would be a snap; he wouldn’t even have to check to see if the meter timer had gone from green to red. He could write 100 a day, easy. According to the assistant city attorney, a city ordinance infraction can result in a fine of up to $1,000. That is $100,000 in fines collected by one person in one day. Shooting fish in a barrel. Do that for a while, and the PD can fund its own special unit, the SUV Enforcement Team. Word would travel. NBC would pick up the idea and start a nighttime series starring a likeable guy loosely based on Chico’s meter man.

At the next City Council meeting on Nov. 16, the municipal code will officially change to allow for the big SUVs. What a shame. It’s not primarily the weight issue anymore—the fact our streets can’t handle the heavy vehicles. The Public Works director says they can. We’ll take his word for it. It’s bigger than that. These Suburbans and Yukons and Hummers and Excursions and Escalades are an assault on decent society. If they were outlawed in this country, we would save approximately the amount of oil we buy from Saudi Arabia each year. One last chance to do the right thing. Surely someone will show up and pull it from the consent agenda so it can be discussed. I can’t. There’s a rule we try to live by in this business that keeps us from getting involved at council meetings, in a procedural way, because we can’t help make the news and then write about it.

I’m not going to pay my $15 parking fine as long as there are SUVs running around breaking the law and not being cited. Why can the cops enforce the parking ticket law but not the weight limit law? What about the seatbelt law that costs $73 a pop? Why do we have the resources for that? This is not a liberal-conservative issue. I’ve had people who I assumed were pretty progressive and environmentally minded stop me in my tracks when I get on this tirade. They shake their heads, hold up their hands and say, “You know, that SUV argument is a red herring,” which of course means they have one parked out in the parking lot. (Dodge, perhaps, would do well to name its next SUV the “Red Herring.”) Will someone please step forward at the next council meeting and force a philosophical discussion over the morally indefensible promotion of gas-guzzling, air-polluting SUVs? Talk about supporting the troops in Iraq. Is there a better way?

What about those uncounted ballots? The progressives may get their hopes up that council candidate John Merz can overtake council incumbent Larry Wahl’s 323-vote lead. I’m thinking that the 3,087 absentee ballots from Chico turned in on Election Day most likely came from progressives, who tend to be unorganized procrastinators. Following that logic, we can also be pretty sure that the 1,314 provisional ballots—those voters who most likely turned up at the wrong precinct—are also probably liberals. We should know by Thanksgiving.