Our Opinion/The road to a Police State is paved with unnecessary ordinances
By Cindy Gomez-Schempp
It’s time to talk turkey about what happened at the August 8 Moorhead City Council meeting. The citizens of Moorhead still have important questions to ask about the proposed pipe ban ordinance.
Questions were raised by Altenburg and Wray Williams, Stueland, and others about the consequences of such an ordinance. But the non-responsive answers given by the Chief and City Attorney left us with the same questions. What are the real “consequences” for the people of Moorhead from this ordinance in terms of:
:: Estimated costs to City for legal defense from lawsuits threatened by the damaged businesses;
:: Cost to Moorhead of losing the tax revenue from the closing of the five businesses affected by the pipe ban ordinance;
:: The possible ramifications of criminalizing activities that are currently legal: new arrests, cost in penalties and fines to citizens and businesses, and leaving youth with criminal records;
:: The backlash from the business community, chamber of commerce, and other such business groups affected by the ordinance.
None of those questions were adequately answered at Monday night’s meeting. And perhaps that’s why the Mayor and City Council members voted to table the issue for 90 days. But, the truth is the issue needs to be tabled indefinitely. No 90 day timeline should be put on making a monumental decision that will take away millions upon millions of dollars from the tax base of an already broke city government. That’s the type of decision that you research carefully, deliberate over painfully, and avoid if at all possible. This is not the type of decision that you bully and threaten your way through the town and City Council without even answering questions about.
Normally we wouldn’t bring up the same issue two editorials in a row. But there are always exceptions to rules and this is one of those.
The issue here is personal freedom, not pipes or paraphernalia. Business owners who testified before the City Council made clear that they are not violating any laws and only selling legal merchandise. So when the Police Chief blusters that there “are investigations” and he could prosecute or arrest people, he’s not lying. He can and surely he does. One business owner responded simply that if the Chief could come and arrest him, then he should do it. But the Chief isn’t telling the whole story.
Here’s his problem: Police Chief David Ebinger is not the judge, jury, and executioner. He’s just our Police Chief. Therefore other parts of the justice system, city leaders and policy makers, prosecutors, judges, and juries all play a role in deciding when and if police arrests were warranted or if proper charges were brought against an individual. The Chief may arrest and charge business owners, but the courts may overturn the chief’s decision and chastise police for abuses of power or improper carriage of the law. That’s where the Chief could use some help: he needs a tool. But who, or more precisely, what will become his new tool?
For whatever reason, the existing laws aren’t sufficient for Chief Ebinger to fight crime with. He demands the citizens and city leaders give him a new “tool” saying “We need the consequences attached so that we’re simply not going in so that we’re having endless circular arguments.” Who’s the Chief arguing with and how is the proposed ordinance going to end those arguments? Simple. Those who are arguing with the Chief over what is and what is not paraphernalia, be they citizens, business owners, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges – are all going to be silenced by the Chief when he gets his ordinance. He won’t have to prove a crime was committed because the City Council will, through this new ordinance, help to create a crime where none existed before! Police Chief Ebinger keeps telling us police “need that tool,” adding he will “work with people” by coming up “ … with a combination with businesses so [sic] remain viable,” yet he unwaveringly reiterates “But we need the tool.”
We’re supposed to just buy that? Come on! The Chief may have decades and decades of experience in law enforcement but he doesn’t have an MBA in business. The businesses being “attacked,” as business man Teply put it, are already good at running their businesses. That’s why they are some of the only businesses that can afford the prime locations on Main Street that these smoke shops currently take up. I really doubt Moorhead business owners are just going to ignore their own business acumen and OK the Chief’s new business plan for them. And why has the police chief decided some businesses should only “remaining viable”? What if a Moorhead business doesn’t want to just “limp by” so the Chief can be appeased? Maybe they instead want to “stand out in success” or even “excel” at their business.
Maybe business owners don’t want the Chief of Police and the City Council decreeing through ordinance what commerce is allowed and which isn’t. Ralph’s Bar, for example, once stood at the coveted corner where Pyromaniacs is now. That business was legal and successful, but also deemed “undesirable” . Ralph’s Corner brought money, music, and excitement to the now bereft downtown. No business since Ralph’s in that location has brought as much attention to that corner or more commerce to its neighboring businesses. But those who made the regrettable decision to end the Ralph’s bar business and those who keep making regrettable and costly economic mistakes for Moorhead: whether they be in the Police Department, in the City Council, in the business community, or in the citizenry, cannot recuperate the losses or the damages caused by bad policy decisions of today. Take heed!
Rather than continuing to drone out the “must have tool” line, the Chief needs to consider stepping back, working with businesses without attacking them, and really think about what freedoms he is trampling. One member of the Council voiced his serious concern of a constitutional breach of our rights if this ordiance were passed. These types of warnings and the angry voices of the citizens who protest this action cannot be ignored. The Chief isn’t just asking for a “tool” here. He’s not at a hardware store ordering items for a project; he’s asking for a drastic and costly change in the law. His new “tool” will come with a million dollar price tag and the community and council have a duty to determine the best interest of everyone in granting such a request, not just whether the Chief has a full arsenal of “tools.” The City Council is elected to represent the will of the people, not to do the bidding of the Chief of Police. The Chief is an employee of the City, and like the City Council members, a servant of the people.
There is a reason the body of government that creates laws doesn’t also enforce the laws. In America where our governments function as democratic republics and not as oligarchies, dictatorships, or Police States, we separate these two important powers to independent entities. The Chief’s recent attempts at social engineering through ordinance, both on his “fake gun” and “pipe ban” ordinances, is setting a dangerous precedent by which he can first create laws criminalizing otherwise legal behaviors, then become the enforcer of his creation. I thought that type of thing only happend in Stallone movies and third world countries!
Chief Ebinger is not Judge Dredd. This is not a movie about the distant future where the Chief can imagine the world he’s trying to create in Moorhead where “one man can be judge, jury, and executioner”. We’re in Moorhead, Minnesota, U.S.A, not some foreign dictatorship. And, above all, we still have freedom! That is, until we let the City Council and the Chief take our freedom away. Chief Ebinger needs to remember that in present day America, our City Council members do not investigate crimes and arrest people, and conversely our Police Chiefs do not create and enforce the law to suit their fancy.
At the time of press, HPR has learned that Chief Ebinger’s may indeed be taking on the persona of Judge Dave and is at this hour already on the rampage. The very next day after Ebinger and his ordinance were laughed off the podium by citizens and after he was ordered by Mayor Voxland to talk civilly to Moorhead business owners, the Chief instead ran out and flexed his muscle by filing charges against one of the owners of Mellow Moods, Andrew Leikas. Fortunately for Mellow Moods, and other businesses in town the Chief doesn’t yet have his “tool” and that means that the final word on these charges will come from a prosecutor or a court. It is very likely that all these “charges” will go away down the road. But not without a fight! And the Chief is determined to pick one.
It seems clear from his immediate and rash action that the Chief’s interpretation of what the Mayor and City Council want him to do when “talking” to business owners is different from his own interpretation. Business owners are tired of the Chief’s tactic to attack first and ask questions later. We at HPR hope that these businesses will not allow themselves to be intimidated by bravado and threats. Bowing to those threats will only prove what the Chief has been trying to portray about smoke shops: that you are all dirty and illegal businesses. But those businesses don’t have to let him! Those businesses know they are legitimate and legal. They should assert their rights in the courts, and demand an inquiry into the practices of our local police departments actions where they have been intimidated businesses.
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