Our Town: Civics for dummies

Publication Date: Wednesday Sep 22, 1999

Our Town: Civics for dummies

by Vicky Anning

When I first arrived on the Palo Alto political scene, I thought an ordinance was something to do with military hardware. As far as I knew, oral communications was an infectious gum disease rather than a cornerstone of American democracy.

I was a green journalism student fresh off the plane from England. My introduction to Palo Alto's civic life was a packed chamber full of irate homeless advocates decrying the city's attempts to ban sitting and lying along University Avenue. Their three-minute arguments--or oral communications--were as colorful as they were compelling. I'd never seen anything like it in the stuffy halls of power back home.

Huddled in the council chambers with my Stanford classmates--shiny new tape recorder and notebook poised, and buoyed by my professor's advice that "no question is too dumb"--I dared to ask the nearest council member what exactly an ordinance was.

I'll never forget the look of astonishment on then-Councilman Joe Simitian's face. Always the consummate politician, Simitian handled my naive curiosity with extreme grace. But between the lines of his tactful response, I saw the think bubbles: "How could anyone ask such a dumb question?! Everyone knows what an ordinance is." Everyone, that is, except me. ...

I'm sure Simitian--now ascended to the ranks of Santa Clara County supervisor--would have been horrified to think that, just two years later, I'd be covering Palo Alto politics for his hometown paper. I was pretty surprised myself, to tell the truth. But since then, I've not only worked out that an ordinance is just a fancy word for city regulations, I've actually read several dozen of the things line by line--on topics ranging from historic preservation to valet parking.

Steeped in the mysterious jargon that only lawyers can decipher, I quickly realized that these laws were not written for the novice or for the faint-hearted. Long words are always used when short words would do just as well. Why should city officials use the work publish, for example, when promulgate sounds so much better? Why use reversal when rescission looks more impressive?

Take this section of the recently approved historic preservation ordinance: The Director is authorized to promulgate written historic guidelines and code interpretations to facilitate implementation of this chapter.

A sentence like that would get any reporter fired.

Translating city jargon has become one of my specialties. A traffic calming device, for example, is not some therapy for road rage but a roundabout or speed bump. And a public safety issue, I've learned, is a euphemism used by politicians to make legislation to stop panhandling seem more palatable.

Although most Californians cling to the false assumption that people with an British accent like mine are naturally intelligent, I've found language can still be a barrier. I've learned to spell the American way, delighting my friends back home when I accidentally write color rather than colour, or gotten rather than got. But occasionally, I still hear my editor chuckle (or sigh) when he comes up against one of my Anglicisms in a story. "What on earth is throwing a spanner in the works?" he'll ask. A quick check of the dictionary puts us both out of our misery. A spanner in the Old World somehow became a wrench when it crossed the Atlantic.

A couple of times, I've fallen afoul of Palo Alto's arbiters of political correctness. Usually one of my editors catches it and beats it out of me. But once the term boys in blue--a common and almost affectionate alternative to police officer back home--slipped through the net. Within minutes, Palo Alto's persons in blue were on the phone complaining about my lack of gender sensitivity. Oops.

What they don't know is that in England we call speed bumps sleeping policemen. Go figure. And, even worse, Native Americans are still known as Red Indians. I guess we Brits have a long way to go in PC parlance.

Which brings me to the point of this column. I will soon be taking my hard-won knowledge and going home. It's not that I don't like Palo Alto. I do. I really do. Even with those silly ordinances and the funny spelling. But I've been offered a job as a feature writer at a newspaper in my native England, and it's time to return to the fold.

I'll miss those Monday night council meetings. And my weekly diet of new ordinances to read. But I must admit I am looking forward to being allowed to spell properly again!

Vicky Anning is a staff writer at the Weekly.

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