Put these laws on the wall of shame.
No U.S. legislative body rolled in to 2014 with higher clout than local government. Fully 70 percent of Americans lacked faith in the federal government at the outset of the year, according to an Associated Press poll, yet over 50 percent felt at least "moderately confident" in their local officials. The U.S. Capitol may have been stuck in gridlock, but municipal governments are generally seen as rising above it all. And a lot did, in fact, get done in our city halls and council chambers this past year.
But not all of it was pretty. Some truly head spinning laws and ordinances were put in place this year. Here are 2014's worst.
Ocala, Florida, Takes Aim at Saggy Pants
In an attempt to get residents to pull up their pants, the Ocala city council unanimously passed a "sagging pants ordinance" earlier this year, which levied fines of up to $500 and/or imprisonment to visitors on city property wearing pants 2 inches or more below their waist (the law instructs security personnel to first issue a warning). Where the law may have had an inkling of sanity (a courtroom, for example), in fact it extends to all public property, including sidewalks and parks, according to WFTV. And beyond the intrusiveness of the law, there's an evident concern over racial targeting.
The ACLU has alleged that saggy pants legislation is another example of "racially biased targeting," and overtly attacks the civil liberties of young African-Americans.
There's no indication that Mary Rich, the Ocala councilwoman who drafted the legislation, did so with racially based intent. Yet she's emerging as the Anita Bryant of sagging. After the ordinance passed in July, she boasted that "[I]t's disgraceful to show your underwear." (I envision councilor Rich becoming awkwardly uncomfortable whenever she walks past a Victoria's Secret). Ocala eventually repealed the ordinance in September. Even so, the mayor of a nearby city has floated the idea of implementing a saggy pants ordinance similar to Ocala's.
A Pennsylvania City Bans "Clutter"
A problematic new law passed in Oil City, Pennsylvania, made "junk," "rubbish," and "clutter" left outside private homes illegal. But there was no legal definition of "junk", "rubbish" or "clutter" to go along with it, despite the potential fine homeowners and tenants face if they leave these mysterious items on their property. The city council did, meanwhile, define a few terms Oil City residents were likely baffled by— like "person" and "yard."
A Tax on Illegal Weed
Can you tax the sale of something that's illegal to sell? Hillsboro, Oregon, did just that in October.
The mid-size city hastily slapped a 10 percent sales tax on marijuana. The only problem? Weed wasn't decriminalized until two months later. "It strikes me as strange that we would impose a tax on anything that is illegal," Fred Nachtigal, the lone Hillsboro councilor to vote against the ordinance, said at the time. The ordinance appears to have been a completely useless (albeit creative) effort to raise tax revenue.
South Bend Censors Its Council Members
The ACLU is jumping all over an ordinance recently passed in South Bend, Indiana, which "outlines" what city council members can and cannot post on social media. The advocacy group alleges the law is a violation of the council's First Amendment rights. I'm actually more worried that this ordinance inhibits an unwritten right of city residents: To witness their local officials saying stupid stuff in 140 characters or less.
It's our civic duty to revel in the self-inflicted embarrassment of elected officials when they go overboard on social media (looking at you, Anthony Weiner). If South Bend's local representatives can't post "misleading, defamatory, and inaccurate material," how will the city's political climate remain even slightly interesting?
Luckily, this ordinance has only passed one hurdle in its road to becoming law (a second vote is scheduled for February). In the interest of its citizens, the council should shoot it down, and liberate itself to make as many shocking political gaffes as its residents can handle.
A Ban on Giving Food to the Homeless
Sadly, 2014 will be remembered as a year when many U.S. cities passed legislation that made life even more difficult for the homeless. Most notable is a recent ordinance in Fort Lauderdale which requires charities feeding the homeless to obey strict food service restrictions and provide toilet facilities. Officials from Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere say such ordinances protect the homeless from food-borne illnesses. Advocates for the homeless, of course, see it differently: that the measures are a ruse by municipalities to sweep the issue of homelessness further under the rug:
"These laws are all essentially coming from the same place, the notion that by making it difficult for homeless folks to either sleep out of doors, or ask for help through panhandling, or in this case have access to food, the problem will simply go away," says Jerry Jones, executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "They’re essentially trying to eliminate the food supply."
Oklahoma City Passes an Urban Chicken Law ... Accidentally
2014 was a tough year for urban chicken advocates. Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and Huntsville, Alabama, were a few of the municipalities that voted against easing regulations on backyard chicken farming. And in May, the Oklahoma City governing body thought they had done the same, voting 5-4 against an ordinance that would have made it easier to raise chickens in densely populated areas.
Yet, OKC's urban chickens prevailed! How? "Blame a clerical error," the city attorney's office told a local media outlet, when a separate vote on gardening rules accidentally removed the barriers to chicken farming. Essentially, unbeknownst to the city council, they instituted the chicken farming ordinance they had recently voted down.