Irony. I just love it as a tool to emphasize a point. It has many definitions, one of which is, “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” It can be used to elicit strong emotions, such as in O’Henry’s “The gift of the Magi,” where newlyweds sell their prized possessions to enhance the prized possessions of their spouse. The wife sells her hair to get a chain for the pocket watch that he sells to buy her a set of beautiful hair brushes.
Today’s story of irony is about an enforcement action against a possible new business in the city of Santa Monica that has now been put in danger of never happening because our city government is so very proactive in enforcing the laws of the land.
I’m not talking about the annual visit I get each year from the ever handsome firemen to make sure that I have a fire extinguisher and no illegal hazardous activities in my small law office. Nor the annual reminder that I have to pay a business license fee in order to work.
What I am talking about are the overly zealous police officers, inspectors, and city attorneys who like to create a Potemkin Village of being tough on crime, and pro-business. This usually manifests itself in the crackdown of some nefarious crime. For me it was Sept. 1, 9 a.m., I was turning left from Pico onto 3rd street. Officer Lee pulled me over for an egregious violation of the vehicle code.
My tags had expired, literally nine hours previously. At midnight on August 31, I had yet to receive the tags from the DMV. I had proof that I paid the registration, but the officious officer would have none of it.
Today’s lead character is Paul Pearson. You’ve seen him around town. He drives that bright green little electric car. It looks like the skeleton to a grasshopper. It’s based on a sprint car design and if you attended the 4th of July parade in either of the last two years you would have seen him in the electric car section of the parade.
He built that car himself, from the ground up, right here in Santa Monica. He had it registered with the DMV properly, and had it inspected by the California Highway Patrol. The car is totally legit.
But, our city is choosing to prosecute him for the crime of “manufacturing a car without a license.” The city, in conjunction with the DMV, setup a “sting operation” to find out if Paul would help two men, “convert a Thunderbird” to electric. The “take down” involved over 14 personnel, from the police, fire, housing and DMV. I’m guessing, but most of those 14 people had to have an hourly cost close to $50, so that’s $700 an hour to get this 52-year-old-guy who was working out of a garage, with no signs, no sales force, and a “factory” the size of Michael D’s Café dining area.
Paul is a lifelong mechanic and prop maker for the movies. When it comes to making things, his first answer is always yes, and he’ll figure out “the how” later. He’s active with the Sustainable Transport Club.
I intervened in this matter with City Attorney Gary Rhoades in an attempt to reach a settlement. I tried to point out that Paul hadn’t actually manufactured any cars beyond his own, and that it was registered and signed off by the DMV. I suggested that perhaps a better use of the city’s limited resources in this tight economic era would be to go after real criminals like the taggers. I was told that I was not taking this very seriously.
The irony for me is that we have an entire city department devoted to sustainability, both ecologically, and economically. Their job is to make sure that we have clean water and good business opportunities. We have City Council members who get re-elected touting their green credentials. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to incorporate electric cars into our public fleet of vehicles.
Yet when one man tries to do his part, City Hall uses the full weight of its authority to crush innovation and his entrepreneurial spirit. It’s this type of incongruity which makes irony such a delicious tool, except when it puts men like Paul Pearson out of business.
The worst part for us as a society is the chilling effect on others who would want to start a company in their garage in our little burg. It’s a good thing that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak weren’t creating Apple Computers here, or we might not have the iPod today.
David Pisarra is a family law attorney focusing on father’s rights and men’s Issues in the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 664-9969.