When you write about government inefficiency you risk indulging in cliché, and I strive to avoid the pitfall of predictability.
But sometimes the urge, ever lurking, erupts into compulsion.
A while back I was going through the information packet for the Baker City Council’s Dec. 10 meeting. The item titled “Public Art Vinyl Wrap” caused me to pause in my perusal, mainly because I associate the term “vinyl wrap” more with preserving leftover tuna casserole than with public art.
The explanation, though, was simple enough.
The idea is to gussy up functional but not especially fetching items — traffic signal control boxes seem to be a favorite canvas — with paintings, photographs or other artwork that has been rendered on vinyl.
The resulting piece of work is then wrapped around the box, having no effect on its operation but adding a bit of flair to the scene.
The concept is elegant. Besides transforming humdrum objects into attractive ones, these vinyl wraps, from what I can gather, tend to discourage graffiti.
But as I scrolled past that item on the Council’s agenda I was surprised by how many swipes of my finger on the Apple Magic Mouse were required to get to the next one.
What occupied this considerable digital expanse is an “intergovernmental agreement” between the city and the Oregon Department of Transportation, a document that had to be prepared before any vinyl is wrapped.
This agreement, prepared by ODOT, sprawls across six pages.
This seems to me rather more documentation than ought to be necessary to make possible what is a pretty simple and straightforward action.
According to a staff report that accompanies the agreement, city and ODOT officials have already dealt with the most obvious issue, which is ensuring the artwork doesn’t interfere with the signal box. Naturally neither party wants to turn traffic lights into something resembling a disco ball, with the attendant rash of fender-benders.
I daresay the amount of ODOT employee time required to produce this agreement exceeded the $600 the city expects the vinyl wrap to cost.
I’m not suggesting this is an egregious waste of tax dollars.
I doubt any overtime was expended. And whatever other tasks the agreement’s authors would have done otherwise probably wouldn’t have had any noteworthy benefits to the public.
Yet as an example of the volume of paperwork the government — in this case at the state level — produces for even mundane actions, the vinyl wrap agreement strikes me as illustrative.
Among the 13 “agency obligations,” for instance (the agency in this case is the city; it’s not clear why ODOT can’t just refer to the city as the city throughout, as I’ve managed to do), No. 12 deals with the “federal, state, and local laws, regulations, executive orders and ordinances applicable to the work under this Agreement.”
You can begin to appreciate the scale of the problem.
If I’ve done the math correctly, we’re dealing here with 12 separate levels of potential oversight — three rungs of government (federal, state and local) each with four types of possible controls (laws, regulations, executive orders and ordinances).
That list seems plenty comprehensive.
Except obligation No. 12 goes on to cite six state statutes (by number only, fortunately; had the statutes been printed in their entirety the agreement probably would have been four or five times as long), as well as three federal laws, among these the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
What the Civil Rights Act might have to do with wrapping vinyl art around a traffic signal box I can’t offhand imagine, but there you have it.
Yet the city’s potential obligations don’t end there.
No. 12 also mandates that the city (or the agency, if you prefer ODOT’s nomenclature), in addition to complying with those three federal laws, also adhere to “all regulations and administrative rules established pursuant to the foregoing laws.”
That phrase goes a long ways toward explaining why government is awash in verbiage.
The onslaught of words isn’t limited to the laws themselves — although the drafters of most laws rarely use three or four words to deal with a matter if they can figure out how to cram in two dozen.
Laws, especially at the state and federal level, rarely can stand on their own. They need to be propped up by other documents — typically the “administrative rules” cited in the ODOT agreement — that explain how the law will be carried out. Oregon, for instance, has both the ORS — Oregon Revised Statutes — and the OAR — Oregon Administrative Rules. If you printed the whole of both you would need a dump truck to move the resulting stack.
(And you might well want to drive that truck to its usual destination, that being the landfill.)
But we’re still not quite finished with obligation No. 12.
Although the previous references to laws, administrative rules and regulations seem to me generic enough to convince city officials that they had better plan to comply with pretty much anything the state or federal government has ever considered important, No. 12 concludes with what is, if possible, an even more encompassing mandate. The city must also heed “all other applicable requirements of federal and state civil rights and rehabilitation statues, rules and regulations.”
Just in case, you know, city officials were tempted to try to slip through some loophole and get up to some dickens under the guise of gussying up a traffic signal control box.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.