08 February 2013

Vivre La Difference!

Okay, here in Paradise the plumbing is repaired,  the roof leak plugged, Jeep is sold, new top installed on the Kawasaki Mule, new wifi antenna, DVD player replaced, psyche re-tuned,....time for a delayed report:

The move from Montauk to St. Barths inspires various comparisons.  This one is about municipal budget management.  (
We’ll come to pole dancing lessons in another chapter.)  Stay with  me. I promise, no graphs, no pie charts, no footnote references to Milton Friedman.

Let’s start with the hamlet Montauk, which is located within the Town East Hampton. For a number of years, the leadership of the Town balanced its budget by sleight of hand. The process was a simple one: first, the town collected taxes on all real estate located within it’s geopolitical boundaries. No surprise there. But as in so many other communities, the leadership found itself on the horns of a dilemma: If it raised the taxes to a level high enough to support its lavish spending practices, the citizenry might revolt and throw the scoundrels out. On the other hand, if it pegged the real estate tax rate at a level low enough to barely border on outrageous, but not quite high enough to bring out the pitchfork-bearing mobs, a lot of good old boys would have to be scratched from the municipal payroll.

The solution?  Go the Lance Armstrong route:  Cheat.  Hey, the leader of the USPS bicycle racing team can do it, why not the Town of East Hampton? (After all, we do have a post office.) Under the cover of darkness, just “borrow” millions from a dedicated land preservation fund, “dope” those monies into the Town’s current expense budget, and voila, we have an apparently balanced budget with no increase in taxes. Magic. How long can that go on? Answer: Not long enough. The result? A colossal debt, a criminal investigation, a resignation, and a new broom elected in the next election.

But once the Town corrected this financially abusive behavior, it found itself stuck with the nagging problem of funding its expense budget without raising real estate taxes. The solution?  An artful use of police and judicial power.

Here’s how it works:  Parking tickets, issued by uniformed college kids during their summer break.  

A case in point:  The Town of East Hampton v. Pinks London, defendant.

Facts:  In August, 2012, the citizen parks her car on a short block-long north-south street between the highway and the beach.  The east side of this street is bordered for its entire length by a motel, whose guests park there perpendicular to the motel. The west side of the street abuts a sand dune, bearing a sign reading “Parking for Town Residents Only.” Pinks is a town resident, her automobile has a dutifully issued sticker attesting to that fact, and she parked in the Town Zone on the west side of the street, parallel to the sand dune. When she returns from the beach she finds a ticket under her windshield wiper inviting her to plead guilty to a parking violation and to remit  a fine of 80 USD!

The charge on the summons is that her vehicle faced the wrong direction. There is no sign indicating which direction town residents must park, and her experience has been the cars regularly park every which way in this area. Following the instructions printed on the reverse side of the ticket, the outraged defendant pleads “Absolutely Not Guilty” and mails in her plea.

All this occurs in August.  Months go by with no word from John Law.  In late November, a mailed notice is received, and once again the Town invites a guilty plea and the remittance of $80.  The alternative is a trial on December 10.  The Defendant, believing she is finally getting justice, responds instantly: “I will see you in Court!”

Hah.  The East Hampton Town Justice Court is not a “Court” as I have come to know courts.  It has the form, but lacks the innards. A shell without guts.  It has a lot in common with the faux movie production in “Argo”:

When we arrive at the imposing East Hampton Town Courthouse, I immediately notice some anomalies.  First, only court employees and judges can enter the front door!  The rest of us go to the rear of the building, which faces what looks to be a fenced area for construction refuse.  Second, the hour fixed for the start of Court is 12:30 P.M. Huh?  Was there a big judicial party last night and the officials are sleeping it off?  Third, and even more puzzling is the sign on the  back door where we enter:  “All persons must leave this building by 3 PM!”  I can only surmise Pinks is the only case on the calendar and the judge will move the testimony forward at a fast clip.  After all, there are only two witnesses, Pinks and the cop. What could take more than 2.5 hours?

But when we enter the courtroom, we are stunned: At least 75 people are waiting patiently for the proceedings to begin.  Many are lined up waiting their turn to speak to a gentleman wearing a suit, stationed at the front railing.  He checks off each person on his printed list, has a brief conversation, and the line moves.  Who is he and what does he say? He is the Town prosecutor, listens to one sentence of your explanation, and says “Will you settle for $25?”  Pinks adamantly rejects the offer. She insists that she should not have to pay anything because she did nothing wrong, and she is sure the judge will see it her way.  At the reference to “the judge”, the prosecutor smiles benignly, shrugs his shoulders, and moves on to the next in line.

The Judge arrives 45 minutes later.  She is suitably attired in a black robe, sits high on a bench, but this is, of course, all an illusion.  It is play acting to fool the Iranians.  She was elected as a judge (I even voted for her!) but today she is a tax collector.  Period.

We had decided that Pinks would handle her own defense. I would be quiet. Possible? Theoretically. Probable? Not.

Inasmuch as virtually everybody pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $25 fine (window around the corner, no checks, cash or credit card only!) Pinks’ case was reached after only a one hour wait..  For sure we will be out by 3:00.

The transcript, if one were recorded, would read something like this:

Judge: What’s the charge, and how do you plead?

Pinks: I got an unfair parking ticket and I plead not guilty and I would like to tell you why.

Judge: (Incredulous) You plead not guilty?

Pinks: Yes. I have a town sticker, I was parked in an area reserved for town residents, and I don’t deserve the ticket.

Judge: Well, I certainly can’t sit here and listen to the facts. (Your reporter does not exaggerate. That is an accurate quote.) I will have to set another trial date.

Pinks: A new trial date? That’s why I am here now.

Judge: You expect me to listen to you while there are 50 people sitting out there waiting to be heard?

Lawyer London, who now as a large vein throbbing in the center of his forehead says ,“Duh, wait a minute!  Who invited these 50 people to come here today? You did that. Why is this the fault of the defendant?”  In his salad days London might have said that out loud.

Judge:  (After conferring with a court assistant)  Mrs. London, you want a trial? Well, the officer who issued this ticket is a college student and he obviously is off at school now. So come back next week because I think then he may be home on Christmas vacation and if he is here then, (stifling a smile) I’ll give you a trial.

Pinks: Your Honor I cannot come back next week because I will be out of town visiting my grandchildren.

Judge: I repeat: December 18. You be here next week on December 18. We’ll see if we can get the college student in here and then you can have your trial.   By the way, why did you come in here so late. You got this ticket in August, why are you here in December?
Pinks: Because that when the court’s notice told me to be here.

The Judge: ( Now even more pissed off than before)  December 18. You are a town resident. You will be here on December 18.

Lawyer London, who at this time gets up and stands next to the defendant lest of the court officer slap on the cuffs and take her away, comes out of retirement by breaking his silence and makes a cogent argument that surely will save the day and win judgment for his client:  “But Your Honor, we don’t need the ticketing officer. There is no dispute about the facts. Mrs. London admits she parked her car facing north, the ticket says on its face that is the basis of the charge here, and the prosecutor does not dispute the fact there is no sign requiring cars to face south. It’s as simple as that.”

The judge:  And just who are you?

Lawyer London: The defendant’s husband.

The Judge: Well, then you both can come back on December 18. If the college student is not here then, we’ll set another date at that time.  Next case.

Lawyer London then exhibits his years of experience at this job. He whispers to the ever-silent prosecutor, “Ugh, is the $25 offer still on the table? We’ll take it.”

The prosecutor smiles, addresses the court, “Your Honor, the matter is disposed of. The plea is "Guilty", and the fine is $25.”

The Judge:  (Sigh) Ok, $25, out the door and turn right, no checks. Next!
What connection does this story have to life here in St. Barths? Absolutely none whatsoever. I guess that’s the point.

A bientot.

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