Mama Says
by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, March 2005) You are the mayor of a city with long-term fiscal woes. Your city also has more than its fair share of troubles caused by inappropriate human behavior.  So you come up with a plan by which you hope to make some headway toward a solution for both problems.

What’s wrong with that?

Based on the response to Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell’s recent proposal to install red-light cameras at selected intersections, there’s apparently a great deal wrong. The plan has been blasted by members of city council, the press, and even state legislators.

Dozens of arguments have been put forth in opposition to the cameras. Some of these arguments, such as the problem of ticketing owners of leased vehicles, even strike me as vaguely plausible. But so far, I haven’t heard any persuasive argument against the mayor’s broader idea of trying to kill two birds with one stone by raising money at the same time we try to correct a problem.

Setting aside for the moment our aversion to red-light cameras, let’s consider a different widespread problem that might be corrected through revenue-generating enforcement: litter.

Cleveland is a wonderful city filled with nice people, cultural treasures, and an unbelievable volume of garbage. Empty booze bottles, soggy store fliers, chip bags, dog dirt and discarded tires are strewn across tree lawns and vacant lots, gutters, sidewalks, and the grassy banks along the roadways in every neighborhood, but especially in the central city.

Most of us don’t put it there on purpose, but without a beat cop permanently positioned at every corner, it’s impossible to catch even a tiny fraction of the ones who do. So it becomes the responsibility of the property owner to make sure that what comes to rest on our turf gets picked up. It’s one of our least pleasant civic duties, but it’s essential to our city’s health and well being.

For several years now, field imaging technology has been available that would allow an inspector to drive down a street with a special camera that records not only when, but also precisely where an image was taken. A single inspector from the Department of Public Health could document the street-front condition of hundreds of properties every day. If we’re going to buy cameras, let’s buy these.

Would an enforcement program like this cost the city money upfront? Yes. Would it be controversial and difficult to enact? Of course — what isn’t? Would it result in endless quarreling among residents, business owners, and city government about how silly it is to focus on such “minor” issues when we have really big problems to solve? Absolutely.

But like the red-light cameras, seriously targeting litter would focus on a problem that could actually be cured, almost instantly, by a simple change in our behavior. It’s true that our city is plagued by huge difficulties — brownfields in need of remediation, a decaying housing stock, a school system that could be crippled by funding issues beyond local control. Such complex problems defy quick and simple solutions. To cure the litter problem on your street frontage takes a few minutes or hours, not a few decades.

Derailing efforts to fix the so-called minor issues while we bellyache about the larger ones is not the way to go. Why not, instead, focus even more of our collective energy on finding small solutions, in the hope that the momentum we build as a community will carry us toward finding big solutions? It’s worth a try.


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