Smile Politely

So, I Decided To Run For Mayor …

smiley-face-wallpaper-005.jpg picture by legalrecords

Yep, I filed my petitions yesterday.

So now it’s no more shooting from the hip.

No more frankness.

No more insulting people.

From here on out, this column will include a lot of glad-handing, some waving of the flag, and a few non-controversial, even indecipherable comments on future plans.

Just kidding.

(Ed. Note: It’s true. Rob McColley has decided to use democracy to his advantage and run for office. At Smile Politely, we believe in building a community of writers who support each other no matter what they choose to do for their day job. That said, in no way do we collectively endorse Rob McColley for Mayor of Urbana. We also encourage any other potential candidate, new or incumbent, to feel free to write to us if they would like to state their case for election as well. Stay tuned to Smile Politely from now until the elections on April 7, 2009. There’s more to come.)

In the summer of 2005, I discovered a troubling reality: Urbana does not enforce its nuisance ordinances. Yes, the police will shut down the late night beerfest, and remove the festering pile of debris from your yard. But if your neighbors park on the lawn, if they tie their dog to a tree and leave it out to bark in the cold all night, Urbana has balls enough to ask them to stop. If they don’t stop … nothing happens.

We have a neighbor who runs her rumbling car (in the yard) for 15 minutes before driving off. This is true in June as well as January. No one knows why she does it. Click and Clack say it doesn’t help. If we weren’t suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning and deafness, we might be able to figure it out.

We have another neighbor whose German Shepherd attacks everything that moves for a one block radius. At all hours, at any hours, it charges. The noise penetrates our foundation, a block away. You can hear it faintly in bass and celesta tracks from the recent French jazz Heather and I recorded.

Yes, I could go have nice (but more likely terse) conversations with all the people who crap on the neighborhood. Unlike a lot of Urbana residents, I am not confined to a wheelchair. I am not elderly. I have white skin, and speak English as a first language.

But what if it were otherwise? Are the disabled, the senior, and the engineering faculty residents of Urbana expected to just deal with it?

Yes. They are.

Outside of Urbana, magistrates and police generally discourage neighbors from confronting neighbors about neighborhood nuisance. The perps have already shown that they don’t care much about the law, and they know where you live. I met with the mayor. I voiced my concerns. I performed, at her request, considerable research regarding solutions.

She didn’t read it. I could tell she didn’t read it, because she printed it out. That doesn’t work with HTML. And it kills trees. And it costs money.

It doesn’t make me mad at her. She has other priorities, I guess. But I want Urbana to enforce its ordinances. I want the quiet enjoyment of my home. I want to breathe fresh air when I’m reading in the hammock. And if she won’t help me, I’ll have to do it myself.,_Urbana,_IL,_2004-12-26.jpg

I printed the appropriate petitions from the state board of elections website. I took the petitions around to people I know in Urbana. Then, people I know began to refer me to people I don’t know. Soon, I was meeting a lot of really interesting Urbana people. In this sense, it’s great to be a candidate. You get to see the inside of cool houses you’d always wondered about.

One cool-house-occupant signed my petition, but also said she was happy with the direction of the City, and cited the new tenants at Lincoln Square Village as evidence of progress.

Happy is a good thing to be. And because happiness is subjective, one can choose to be happy about anything. Of the net new tenants at Lincoln Square, most of them generate no sales tax. Organic groceries, fitness centers, and HMOs are good things to have around. But they don’t bring in that intoxicating 7.75%.

Sales tax represented one-fifth of Urbana’s revenue in 2007. Now that Meijer is up and running — a decade after the Satterthwaite Administration first persuaded them to open shop here — and the Wal-mart has been annexed, that figure will jump. Notice how we stole Champaign’s thunder in October alone. As long as people are going to buy things, they might as well buy them in Urbana. We could use the cash.

For generating sales taxes, you’d want to sell something that people consume almost immediately (and must consequently buy again tomorrow). Heroin is good for this purpose. People need it everyday, and they’re willing to pay almost anything for it. But evidently there’s a downside, too. And it’s illegal, and therefore, it can’t be taxed. So instead, Urbana will get a methadone clinic. It’s not as glamorous, but it helps people focus their spending on more taxable items, like cigarettes.

For sustainability purposes, selling disposable items is bad. Urbana could require that everyone use paper and plastic cups all the time, and that would boost sales of paper and plastic cups. But it would be bad for the landfill.

(Intriguingly, Urbana does require paper or plastic cups for its class T liquor licensees. Imagine sitting under the stars at Meadowbrook Park, enthralled by Lorin Maazel punching the touring company of the New York Phil through a particularly forceful bit of Khachaturian while sipping Veuve Clicquot from a Dixie cup.)

The same is true of “durable” goods. Manufacturers, like Revenue Collectors, would rather sell things that don’t last. Just look at Detroit. As soon as they sucker you into buying a car, they begin pressuring you to buy a new car.

The product I’ve been manufacturing for the last 13 years is music. I need music every day. And after it’s left my ears, it doesn’t get flushed or dumped. I’m not sure where it goes. In fact, it often seems to stay with me. (Because I’m dumb, I’ve lately been giving it away for free. You’re certainly welcome to pay for it.)

The sweet spot of sales tax revenue collection comes where necessary product meets willing consumer. And although groceries aren’t taxed at the retail rate, restaurant meals are. So the thing for Urbana to do is make it super, duper easy for restaurateurs and café owners to open shop here. As long as SURS and TuRS are in business and as long as old people keep getting healthier and more active, Urbana can provide a sales base.

You wonder why there’s suddenly a Walgreens at every corner? It’s because Walgreens foresees the golden years of the Baby Boom. The boomers ate out once a month in the 1970s. Now, they eat out twice a day.

The most interesting encounter I had during the petition signing stage featured a former City staffer for a quarter of a century. He looked at my pamphlet for a few minutes, and then told me he would not sign. I had not evinced, to his satisfaction, an understanding of the complexities of Urbana government.

Now, it’s hard to get 25 years of governance issues into one pamphlet. But still, I’m somewhat sympathetic. I employed similar logic in condemning Sarah Palin for her lack of interest in our constitutional framework.

Few people know as much as this city staffer about Urbana governance. But using his logic, I’d think the big worry is not local governance 2010. The big problem is local governance 2050. A lot of those people know nothing about Tax Increment Financing, and many of them can’t even read yet.

He told me he wants the mayoral ballot to feature only the people he considers well-qualified to be mayor. That’s where I depart from his logic. Urbana government has long cultivated a notoriety for being unresponsive to its boss: the voters. The City’s reputation for Knowing Better mostly involves the elected branch. But Urbana’s civil servants are not unknown at the center of political firestorms.

Of course, some of the Urbana residents I met said local officials have always been responsive to them. These people, I noticed, have something in common: a (publicly searchable) talent for writing checks, and an equally high capacity for mailing those checks to political campaigns.

On the bright side, the city staffer’s diligence is mirrored by many other staffers who haven’t given up on working to make Urbana a neat place to live. I’ve met some of them. I’ve worked with some of them. They can be charming, and quite serious about professionalism. That’s probably why Urbana hasn’t yet sunk into the mire, despite a tendency toward political officers whose concerns involve federal, international, even interstellar issues. (But before we make fun of them, it’s worth noting that since Urbana City Council declared us a Nuclear Free Zone, we have not seen any nuclear warheads installed here. And there’s only one nuclear reactor.)

I forgive the city staffer his ignorance of my stance on qualifications for elective office, neighborhood preservation, the importance of fervent adherence to zoning regulations, living amongst others, emulating Eeyore rather than Tigger, and even the value of Chester Frazier.

Many retirees have yet to discover Smile Politely. But we’re trying.

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