Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Politics

Carlton: Government is where a nice little idea can go to die

So a guy on the Tampa City Council had this nice idea.

Hey, thought Guido Maniscalco, the council's newest and youngest member, why not let people who get parking tickets pay off part of their fines by feeding the hungry? Why not let parking scofflaws fork over canned goods instead of cash to help out over the holidays?

Tallahassee, Savannah, Albany, Cincinnati and Lexington, Ky., have all done some version of food for fines. So surely this proposal would fly through a City Council meeting with minimal discussion and a resoundingly unanimous yes, right?

Hungry people get helped! Ticket-getters feel good — or at least better — about paying up!

What could go wrong, right?

Maniscalco's nice idea on this week's City Council meeting agenda started off fine. Council members heard from the city attorney, who told them that yes, in fact, they could legally accomplish this proposal by amending an ordinance and adopting the program pursuant to a resolution process. (Uh, okay. Sure.) Smooth sailing from here, right?

"Actually," said council member Lisa Montelione, "I have a couple of questions." And, they were off.

Well, yes, a city administrator answered, there were concerns about collecting, storing and distributing all that food. (Apparently they do not have a vast empty warehouse nor staff sitting around doing sudokus.) Consider that Lexington's program took in 6,000 cans in a month, and Albany reportedly 27 tons. No time period was disclosed, but yes, they said tons.

"So that would be a logistical challenge for us once you start talking about tonnage," Ocea Lattimore of the city's logistics and asset management department diplomatically told the board.

Council member Charlie Miranda, known for his thrift, called the idea honorable but pointed out the parking department is not exactly "flourishing in money" but in fact scraps for every dollar.

Even allowing ticket-payers to substitute nonperishable food for $15 off their fines for a single month would cost.

How do you determine which charity gets the food, Montelione asked. Wouldn't they have to put the whole thing out for bid?

Alternatives were mulled: Why not let those ticketed write a check to a favored food bank? Why couldn't parking violators schlep those butter beans and canned corn there themselves and snap a cellphone selfie as evidence? Couldn't the city just have a bring-a-can-to-work day for its thousands of employees?

Suddenly the problematic possibilities seemed endless if you were listening to this. What if a Christian charity were chosen — would this raise religious-based objections? The mind reeled.

The nice little item stretched on into the lunch hour.

And they weren't even wrong.

Because what played out that day was the true nature of government and its inevitable bureaucracy, of elected officials who have to represent our interests within a tangle of regulation and reality, who must weigh cost and benefit no matter how good something sounds.

Yes, Maniscalco told me later, he was a little surprised at how it went. But he's determined to have more "clarification and details" at their June 23 meeting, when a nice idea comes up again.

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