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Here is the difference between being a legislator and being a judge: Becoming a judge is a tremendous pain in the tush, but the job is terrific. Becoming a legislator is fun and exciting, but the job sucks swamp water. This — by which I mean my strong distaste for swamp water — is why I was never interested in a career as a legislator. After all the excitement of running the electoral race, legislators don’t hit the tape of victory so much as hit the wall of a job that consists, in large measure, of deciding what is the optimum curb height in a school zone and whether strawberries or artichokes are more deserving of irrigation. I’d rather shovel out the latrines. In a hurricane. So I’m generally not as hard on legislators as some of my friends are. I figure legislators are doing a job I wouldn’t be willing to do, so I try to cut them some slack. The commissioner of baseball and the Victoria’s Secret photographers get no slack; legislators do. Especially local legislators. City councils. As Goethe said, “To rule is easy, to govern difficult.” And nothing proves this hypothesis as clearly as local government. City councils are the Sisyphus of legislatures. I don’t mean to diminish the contributions of national and state legislatures. When my self-esteem is running low, nothing picks it up quicker than comparing my accomplishments to those of whatever member of Congress happens to be playing footsie with a vice cop or stashing cash in his Frigidaire. And when I find myself staring at the unmown backyard for the third weekend in a row, my self-loathing is greatly assuaged by contemplating the pace of the California state Legislature at budget time. (1) But for truly unique entertainment, nothing beats a city council. A city council meeting is what would have happened if Abbott and Costello had met not Frankenstein but Edward R. Murrow. Try to imagine a play whose every third word was written by Geoffrey Chaucer, Eddie Izzard, and Jar Jar Binks, and you’ll start to get the flavor. My town’s council meets on alternate Tuesdays. I watch every meeting on TV, completely rapt. This is entertainment. These are entertainers. Somehow they manage to be as glacial and impenetrable as a cricket match and at the same time produce a bizarre combination of high drama and low comedy that I find absolutely riveting. It’s as if some television genius was able to find a way to combine the grace and dignity of roller derby with the fast-paced action of “Meet the Press.” Every meeting is like watching a West African coup attempted by a bad amateur theater company. I don’t understand why this show doesn’t have a network contract. Don’t bother trying to call me on Tuesday nights. I don’t answer the phone. When I miss an episode, it puts me in a blue funk for the better part of a week. And it turns out my city council — orangutan wedding that it is — isn’t even the best. I’ve been eating chopped liver and thinking it was foie gras. PULL UP YOUR PANTS In Louisiana, city councils are banning “saggy pants” and legislating against visible undergarments. Now that would make for great TV. If I had to choose between that and the Super Bowl, I’d watch the council and TiVo the game. I think the Louisiana folks have gone walkabout on this one, but I can certainly understand how they got there. One of the surest signs that I have aged into full-fledged geezerhood is that I can now be antagonized by clothing. Baseball caps with flat bills, worn crooked, irritate me. Baggy, calf-length shorts, belted below the glutes so as to reveal painfully pedestrian boxers, (2) irritate me. This is something new to me. I came of age in the 1960s. I spent three years in Berkeley. The fact that I can be alienated by clothing seems a betrayal of everything I espoused in my youth. It irritates me that this stuff irritates me. (3) But at least I don’t advocate legislation to get rid of it. I’m not yet that old. Louisiana is. Pants-banning is spreading there like some kind of weird legislative kudzu. Most recently, Port Allen, a town of something over 20,000 people, (4) passed an ordinance that “requires pants to be secured at the waist so they do not fall below the hips, expose underwear or create indecent exposure.” According to the Associated Press, the fine for this offense ranges from $25 to $250. (5) I can certainly sympathize with Councilman Hugh Riviere, who said, “It’s called underwear for a reason.” But mostly I just feel bad that I didn’t get to watch the debate that led up to this ordinance. We haven’t reached this level in my town yet. Our latest controversy is whether allowing Quiznos into town would push us one step closer to Gomorrah. (6) THE FASHION COPS But in Louisiana, this is a hot topic. According to the AP, seven — seven — different Louisiana towns “have passed similar droopy drawers ordinances: Eunice, Shreveport, Alexandria, Delcambre, Mansfield, Lafourche and Pointe Coupee. Two others, Lake Charles and . . . Baldwin, are considering them.” One of these places, Shreveport, is a city, for gawdsakes. According to Wikipedia, the Shreveport-Bossier City metropolitan area boasts 375,000 residents. (7) They’re gonna have to hire a lot of fashion police. If, as Arlo Guthrie taught us, 50 people a day is a movement, Shreveport puts us way over the top. Call it the Alice’s Restaurant Baggy Pants Massacree Movement. (8) I’ll bet attendance at Louisiana State University and Tulane football games is way down. Who would watch football when the Pointe Coupee Parish Council is passing legislation that could drive plumbers and teenage boys across the river into Avoyelles? Is it just me, or is it impossible to contemplate these meetings without thinking about Will Rogers’ famous comment that “this country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer”? NOT PLAYING NICE And if you’re thinking about babies wielding hammers, you gotta think about the Ashland (Ore.) City Council. According to the Medford Mail Tribune, things have gotten so heated at its meetings that it’s going to pay $37,000 for group therapy for the council. Honest. The town’s going to shell out $37,000 for psychotherapy to keep its elected representatives from strangling each other during meetings. Imagine. In Oregon. Apparently all that granola didn’t do the trick. As I understand it, the decision to pony up 37K to have a local naturopath (9) counsel them on how to get along came after a meeting in which one councilman told another to “shut your f—– mouth.” The target of that outburst, who piously deplored it as “not acceptable behavior,” had previously called the mayor a Nazi and is known for having run around town naked to protest Ashland’s 2004 ban on public nudity. (10) Information is a little skimpy about the other five members of the council. It’s hard to tell whether the $37,000 is going to be spent mostly on these two perps or whether the entire council is dysfunctional. (11) Martha Bennett, the city manager, said, “They’re supposed to disagree. There is a reason there are seven of them. It’s good for Ashland that they disagree . . . but they have to work together.” (12) Unfortunately, Martha didn’t say what the therapy is meant to accomplish. Are we hoping to get them to keep their hands to themselves, use their indoor voices, and not leave their seats without permission . . . or just tag over the top rope and not use their nameplates for eye gouging? How high are we aiming here? TRY IGNATIA It’s also difficult to tell how they came up with $37,000 as a cost for counseling. I have very little experience with therapists, (13) but I wasn’t aware they quoted a price up front. Contractors do that. Car dealers do that. But I wasn’t aware that therapists could tell you how much it would cost to solve your problems before meeting you. Near as I can determine, it must have gone something like this: Martha described the city council, and the naturopath shook his head ruefully and said, “Whoa, you got big problems. This is gonna cost you 25, maybe 30,000. Oh, wait, did you say he was completely naked when he protested the nudity ban? I think we better make that 35. . . . Oh, and the Nazi thing. I’m sorry, Martha, I can’t do this for a penny less than $37,000. I’ll have my assistant draw up the contract. Can I offer you some ignatia for that headache?” Local legislators. God bless �em, every one. I have no idea what would possess a person to think this is something he or she wanted to do. Because it’s clear to me that the lower you are on the legislative totem pole, the more you have to deal with real problems instead of just flouncing around, pontificating about the unchecked evil represented by the other political party. That sucks. Swamp water. If you’re a local legislator, the people bringing you problems aren’t a thousand miles away, and they don’t have names that end in “Inc.” They live three doors down. Their kids go to school with your kids. They’ll know if you pass the buck or blow them off. So no matter what the problem is, you have to try to deal with it instead of just making it a talking point. Local legislators actually have to act. And boy, is it fun watching �em do it.
1. My wife thinks I should assuage it by mowing the lawn. Women are from Venus. 2. I think maybe I could forgive this fashion statement if they weren’t showing off my father’s underwear, if they were flashing something bright and colorful or somehow imaginative. No, on second thought, I probably couldn’t. 3. Wow, we old people are really irritable, aren’t we? 4. Port Allen may not represent the avant-garde of Louisiana. The most up-to-date population data they are able to provide on their Web site is from the 1990 Census. 5. The maximum fine can be doubled if you’re a recidivist. 6. Honest. This has generated several column-feet of letters to our local weekly’s editor. 7. How can it possibly be that a place called “Bossier City” has not yet passed legislation as bossy as this? 8. That extra “e” in “massacre” is not a typo. Find someone who doesn’t think Alice’s Restaurant is Chez Panisse, and he’ll explain the pronunciation to you. 9. I have, unfortunately, already used up my granola joke. You’ll have to come up with your own footnote here. 10. So help me, if I lived in Ashland, I’d nail my shoes to the floor of their city council chambers and never leave. They’d have to pay to have me hauled away. 11. Or naked. 12. I thought I’d include one rational person in this column, just to reassure you there is one . . . somewhere. 13. Which probably explains a lot.


William W. Bedsworth is an associate justice at the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, Calif. This article previously appeared in The Recorder , an ALM publication in San Francisco.

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