I think I now understand why cities are having such a hard time financially.
Back in August, I received a certified letter from the city’s Code Enforcement Department. These are the people who ticket you if your grass is too long, you have a broken down car in front of your house for too long, or you leave your trash cans out in the wrong place/for too long, among other things. Apparently, one Friday in July, the code enforcement officer drove past our house and found our trashcans sitting in our driveway, just outside the garage door. Now, since our trash is picked up on Thursdays, this is a violation of the city ordinance. She made note of it and some weeks after the event, sent us the ticket.
Now, I don’t keep a diary of trash days. I do know there was one night when we came home from dance class really late. We’d been stuck in traffic for highway construction for a stupidly long time. Neither of us had had dinner. I desperately needed to get to the bathroom. It was close to 11pm, we were still in our work attire. And the trash can stank. We didn’t really want to put it into the garage and attract bugs and that late at night neither of us really felt up to rinsing it out. We could have dragged it across the hill of the front yard, along the side of the house, fought to get it through the gate (I’m not entirely sure it would fit), and put it in the backyard. But we did what pretty much anyone would do. We pulled them up the driveway and left them sitting right in front of the garage so we could take care of them when we got home Friday afternoon. Did we know we weren’t supposed to leave them out? Yes. Did we consciously consider that we were breaking the law? No.
When we got the ticket in August, I had no way of knowing if this was the same event or not. I’ll be honest, sometimes we didn’t always put them away on Thursday night. I know. We’re terrible people. But, I’ll also tell you that on any given day, I can find 15-20 houses within 3 blocks who have their trashcans “improperly stored and visible from the thoroughfare” at all times. Anyway, I called the number on the ticket to see what to do about it. That’s when I learned that 1. There is no first time warning 2. The fee is $319 3. If I plead Not Guilty and lose, I’ll have to pay court costs. So, I signed the back of the ticket on the line that said “Guilty” because, really, even if I hadn’t left them out on the day the ticket was for, I KNEW I’d left them out at some point and I’m a good girl like that. Karmically, it balanced out. The woman I spoke to at the courthouse told me to send the ticket back signed and I’d be sent instructions for paying it.
August, September, and October went by and I never heard a word about it. I started to think that maybe someone in the bowels of the city judicial system realized that this was indeed a little silly. Ok, no, I’m not that naive. I know how slowly municipal wheels turn. I did sort of hope that we’d just fallen through some crack somewhere. Then, the week I lost my job I got a two letters from the city. They were identical, so as I start to describe how stupid this all gets, remember that it starts with spending twice the postage on me. The letters were to inform me of my ARRAIGNMENT DATE. Yes, that’s right. I had to be arraigned for my trash cans. Feel free to start humming “Alice’s Restaurant” any time you feel like it. If I wanted to just plead guilty, I could go to the courthouse any time TO APPEAR BEFORE A JUDGE. Because I can’t say it enough FOR MY TRASH CANS. Well, what with the losing the job thing, my aunt dying, looking for work, the FET, trying to get the house ready to sell, and Thanksgiving, the weeks just sort of flew by without a trip downtown (which I avoid like the plague).
That brings us to today. Arraignment day. The letter informed me that I was welcome to bring my attorney if I wanted and that today’s procedings would be for the sole purpose of informing me of my options, allowing me to enter my plea, and to set a trial date if I pled Not Guilty. I tried to imagine calling an attorney to represent me in the case of The State of Texas v. Allison Simpson re: Waste Can Storage. And yes, according to the letter it was indeed the State of Texas bringing the charges, not the City of Fort Worth. I arrived at the courthouse 90 minutes early. I spent 30 of those trying to find a parking lot with an actual person in it since I didn’t have any $1 bills and I thought I might be longer than the 2 hour maximum. I got through the security check quickly, even though every woman’s jewelry set off the metal detector. I found Court #2 and waited for them to reconvene after lunch. By 12:45, there were five of us standing outside the court, all with trash can violations. Apparently, they group them together. That makes sense to me. It will, in fact, turn out to be the only truly sensible act of the entire process.
We filed into the tiny courtroom and handed our arraignment notices to the bailiff and took a seat. The judge walked in with no ceremony whatsoever. He sat down, announced that this was the arraignment hearing for waste cart storage and confirmed that we were all where we should be. Then he acknowledged that people tend to get a little fired up over being ticketed for their trashcans, particularly when they learn the fee is $319, but that the City of Fort Worth has a law stating that trashcans should not be stored where they are visible from the thoroughfare. He then explained that this hearing was to give us our options and take our pleas. No testimony would be taken today. If we wished to plead “Not Guilty” and require the City of Fort Worth to prove our guilt, that would be recorded and a trial date notice would be mailed to us. Alternatively, if we wished to take a free three hour class on trash issues and then return within 120 days with the certificate stating we had indeed taken the class, we could go and the citation would be cleared. The judge reiterated that the class was free. He asked each person individually if they wished to take the free class. Each person responded with a hearty, “Yes sir!” The bailiff handed us a flier with the information on registering for the class and the judge told us good bye. Ten minutes.
Now. I have to wonder what the salaries of the judge, the bailiff, and the clerk are. If, instead of someone having to receive the tickets we mailed back and apparently ignore the plea indicated on them, then print out duplicate letters to mail to us, schedule the court, etc, then have three officers of the court present, wouldn’t it just be easier and more fiscally sound to send the ticket along with a notice that you are required to attend a three hour class within 120 days and provide proof of attendance to the city? Then that judge, bailiff, and clerk could put their attention towards other more important dockets. If someone actually bothers to plead not guilty and wants their day in court, to which they are fully entitled, then spend the extra time setting that up, but to do it for EVERYONE. It’s a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money and of time on both the city and the citizen’s side. After going through this nonsense, it’s hard for me to feel much sympathy for a city that sold its soul to the gas drilling companies and yet can’t make a budget balance.
Now, how in the hell do you spend THREE HOURS discussing trash?