There must be something in the sea air that surrounds California’s beach cities.
To the north there’s Santa Cruz, a city whose last mayor was an avowed socialist and whose council has passed or pondered such odd ordinances as declaring the city a Hate Free Zone or making it illegal to discriminate based on a person’s physical appearance. Santa Cruz can always be relied upon for sarcastic newspaper features pointing out what those crazy ex-hippies by the beach are up to now.
We have the same kind of thing in Southern California: It’s called Santa Monica.
Last week, Santa Monica’s City Council debated an ordinance to outlaw cellular phone use by drivers within city limits. This comes on the heels of last year’s notorious attempt to ban, within city limits, all ATM surcharges that banks charge non-account holders. Banks retaliated by reprogramming their ATMs to only accept transactions by their own customers, and the ordinance was soon shot down in court as an illegal breach of federal banking oversight powers though not before seriously inconveniencing many city residents and business people.
The council seems to enjoy overstepping the bounds of what city government is put there to do. The federal government reserves the right to regulate the banking industry because, if every city in the country tried to pass its own banking laws, the result would be chaos. Hence the court defeat of the ATM surcharge ordinance.
The cell-phone proposal was defeated by a vote of 5 to 2, proving that common sense can sometimes prevail even in the People’s Republic of Santa Monica. But the fact that this ludicrous plan ever made it to a council vote and even managed to find two council members in favor shows how easily a few loose cannons at the head of a local government can take away important freedoms, even in a place where freedom is purportedly cherished.
Just about everyone, at some time or another, has been irritated at the sight of a driver talking on a cell phone. The devices might even be a genuine road hazard, though no U.S. studies have been performed on the issue. But it’s a very big leap from being irritated by something to concluding that it’s the role of a city government to outlaw it. If an annoyance were ample cause for city legislation, it would be illegal to talk during a movie, show up late for appointments, bring crying children to restaurants or play loud music in a car with the windows open.
Santa Monica, which is also debating a very tough living wage ordinance, seems determined to bite the hand that feeds it. Thanks to its good weather and proximity to the beach, the city has become a magnet for gold-collar employers like Hollywood producers and dot-coms. Real estate values continue to soar, business is booming, and the city’s general fund swells with tax revenues. But it hasn’t always been that way, and it might not be in the future.
Virtually no dot-com or Hollywood types would be bothered in the least by a living wage ordinance, but one shudders to think how these go-go executives would have reacted had their cell-phone privileges been taken away. Such a move might actually have been enough to rouse Santa Monica’s sleeping giant: its business community, which is largely content to get on with business and wink at the strange doings of the City Council.
At a certain point, the economic cycle will inevitably shift downward. With less funny money flooding in from venture capitalists and more fiscally conservative managers at the helm of local businesses. Cities with over-inflated real estate values like Santa Monica could feel the bite. Rather than burning bridges with its own business community, the City Council might do well to think about building a few bridges before that day comes.