Rodney King was an ordinary guy with a few too many brushes with the law. But his now famous rhetorical question contains wisdom that we should all contemplate. “Can’t we all just get along?” Apparently not. We seem to have changed as a society. I think the problem is that many of us have come to believe that it is our right to live without ever being annoyed. Our tolerance of our fellow man is at an all-time low.
I had a couple of constituents in my office recently who were, alternatively, frustrated at being turned in by their neighbors for alleged land use violations, and complaining about different neighbors for their land use violations. This is not an uncommon kind of meeting, and I assume that my colleagues on the board are having similar encounters.
A fundamental principle in our legal system is that citizens are presumed to have acted lawfully. They do not have to prove that they didn’t violate the law. Rather, the burden of proof is on the government.
Santa Barbara County’s land use enforcement is complaint driven. The bureaucrats, by policy, respond only to complaints. These complaints can be, and are even encouraged to be, anonymous. The fact that complaints can be anonymous increases the number of these complaints and lowers everyone’s “threshold of annoyance”.
My personal experience with a similar complaint-driven procedure at my homeowners association suggests that once the anonymous complaint procedure is done away with, the incidence of complaints drops dramatically. In my association, complaints were common but are now rare, following the switch away from anonymous complaints.
There is a greater issue. Under the shadow of a “Soviet model” of anonymous reporting, neighbors cannot seem to talk to one another. I encourage my constituents to tell their neighbor they have a problem and ask for their help in solving it.
Furthermore, the complaint-driven system fosters a mentality that “If somebody turned me in, then I should turn everybody else in.” Indeed, we have a situation in my 4th District right now in which one complaint begat at least 100 others. I hear there are thousands more waiting in the wings.
Maybe it is good to illustrate absurdity by being absurd and turning in hundreds or thousands of violations, demonstrating that the rules are unreasonable. How else can we demonstrate that we have gone too far in our zeal to regulate every aspect of land use in this county?
We have developed in our society the expectation that nobody should be annoyed. This is just not practical or reasonable. We’ve been thrown together on the planet, and we have to get along. A little more toleration and a little more patience would go a long way. A little less eagerness to be bothered would be nice.
I have been told by citizens that they do not want to see light, dust, traffic, or hear noise. They don’t want what they can see to be changed in any way. That is an unreasonable position. As I see it, we need to work on developing a higher tolerance for the presence of our fellow man. Like it or not, we are becoming more densely populated. Our interactions will become more frequent, especially if the push to limit development of single-family homes in favor of “stack and pack” multi-use developments is successful. If we fail to adjust our threshold of annoyance, we are assured a fractious future. There are limits, of course. I for one would prefer to “just get along” as much as possible.
Peter Adam is Santa Barbara County’s 4th District Supervisor.