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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The importance of code enforcement

Although it’s always hot, I love the AFL-CIO’s Labor Day picnic at Boggy Bottom BBQ Ranch. The Lupton restaurateurs who own this big piece of land have done an increasingly wonderful job of preserving Florida’s natural environment, while making just the right amount of improvements – misters, fans, and shade – to provide comfort. South of Plant City, it is in a lonesome part of Hillsborough that is unknown to many county residents. We enjoy the annual drive almost like tourists in a foreign place.

You turn off of Keysville Road and go down a lane that takes you to a parking lot, which still is fairly distant from the site. From there, you can jump on the tractor-pulled tram – which kids love – but we always walk the half-mile or so and listen for birds. There’s a wooden bridge and a variety of native plants, especially ferns. At the end of the lane, the thousands of people who come every year finally become visible. From the top of a two-story building, musicians play between speeches by endorsed candidates. Yesterday’s were headlined by gubernatorial and attorney general nominees Charlie Crist and George Sheldon.

A number of unions, especially those from the building trades, have tents in a circle by the speakers, while other groups gather further down the road near the open-air BBQ building. Across from it is the playground area, which gets better every year. Some families bring their own pup tents and hang out nearby, while I like to grab one of the red-and-white checkered tables and watch kids use their imaginations with old-fashioned play tools. They intuitively understand how to swing from a gate or use kid-power to propel a see-saw or a small merry-go-round or ride on the spring-loaded ducks. The only concession to modernism is a big plastic water slide, but there’s nothing electronic and nothing noisy. It’s joy in the woods and true family values.

That reminds me: I said a few weeks ago that I saw no crying or misbehaved children in the four former Iron Curtain nations we visited recently – and I saw none yesterday. As I remember back to my own youth, however, playground fights were routine. Even family reunions, with the literally dozens of cousins I had, usually had their screaming scenes. I’d be interested to know if others are observing this phenomenon of happier children and if it is real. I think so. Kids seem to learn in day care and kindergarten how to share and cooperate. And adult violence in the guise of discipline is no longer acceptable. School principals still maintained corporal punishment back then, and many parents – especially fathers – saw spankings and even beatings as an inherent part of their duty. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was their motto, a ready excuse for adults who lost their tempers.

A second factor that we rarely consider in child rearing is violence in the form of war, but most of my generation had fathers who were in World War II. Many of the next generation experienced the same with Korea and Vietnam. We forget that the latter were big wars, with hundreds of thousands of casualties among men who did not want to be there. Today’s much smaller professional military endures far fewer deaths. and therefore axiomatically, we have many fewer kids wordlessly worried about absent fathers. Parents like those at the picnic -- young electricians, carpenters, plumbers, and more – no longer live with anxiety that they will be drafted. Peace promotes happy families.

With little pressure to become warriors, young men also are free to live the values that benefit their offspring. At last year’s AFL-CIO picnic, I saw a young father change the clothing of his three boys from water-soaked wet to dry and clean. The kids probably were four, three, and two – too young to be embarrassed as he dressed them assembly-line style: pants on one, two, three boys; shirts on one, two, three; and soxes and shoes in the same style. Their mother was nowhere in sight. That scene would have been a huge impossibility when I was young: No father at a labor event would have changed his kids’ clothes. He would have feared being labeled a sissy, and instead likely would have abandoned his boys for the beer tent.

Children benefit tremendously from these changes in parental roles, and as a group, kids probably are happier than a generation or two ago. The biggest factor of all, though, probably, is the birth control pill. It went on the market in the late 1960s, just at the end of the national nightmare that was Vietnam. It enabled both men and women – but especially women – to claim control over their bodies and lives, to decide when and even if they would take on the responsibility of reproduction. I think that today’s happier kids are the fulfillment of Margaret Sanger’s goal: “Every child a wanted child.”

* * *

Politicians spend Labor Day weekend moving from picnic to picnic, with statewide and congressional candidates taking buses or RVs for consecutive days on the road. They usually hit an event for an hour or even less, and then, in our big state, must move on to the next one. Local candidates, however, use the day to talk with individual voters. This is especially true of judicial candidates, who have little access to the hundreds of thousands of voters who will decide whether or not they will become a judge. I spent a long time chatting with one I’d never met, and he touched on a subject is a hot-button one for me: illegal campaign signs.

I volunteered way too many hours in the 1990s as Pam Iorio’s appointee to the Citizens Advisory Committee for the County Commission, and one of the projects on which I worked was revision of the sign ordinance. We did have some success in banning portable electric signs and in reducing the number of billboards on county roads – but the two decades later, the issue of campaign signs remains in need of attention. It’s not because the ordinance is inadequate, but because county employees ignore it.

The ordinance requires that Code Enforcement take down signs on public right-of-ways and that the offender be fined for that illegal placement. Especially in election years, those fines could fund their own enforcement and even make a profit for the county, yet you see campaign signs on public property all over. And Code Enforcement’s ultimate bosses, the county commissioners, seem okay with that. Incumbent County Commissioner Al Higgenbottam not only has innumerable illegal signs, but even decorates public property such as the fire station on Seffner’s Kingsway Avenue.

Unsuccessful school board candidate Randy Toler could have filled Code Enforcement’s coffers all by himself, as his illegal signs went up last winter and never were taken down. Ditto another school board candidate, Michael Weston. I hope there’s hope in the fact that these worst offenders also were big losers. Especially in such nonpartisan races, which attract more thoughtful voters, such candidates may actually be sending a negative message. To me, it almost shouts: “I don’t have enough supporters with private property, and I’m desperate enough about losing that I litter public land. Or maybe I don’t know – or care – about the law.”

The judicial candidate I spoke with on Monday respects the law and has restricted himself to legal signs on private property. He had one at a convenience store on Gandy Boulevard, and because of the security camera there, could see the exact time and date when his large sign was taken down and its lumber stolen. The camera even provided proof of who stole it, but no one in law enforcement was interested – even though, within a couple of months, he may very well be a judge hearing the cases that law enforcement wants heard.

He and the storeowner replaced the sign, and again it was stolen. It’s on its third incarnation now, and I hope that someone pays attention. We agreed that it is particularly egregious when this happens in judicial races, which should be above such tactics. I personally am disheartened because his opponent is a woman, and with only a few exceptions in the past, our female judges have exemplary records. No one who is sworn to uphold the law -- as lawyers and judges are -- should condone zealous supporters who violate the law, including the county’s sign ordinance.

* * *

A bit more on law enforcement. Hubby’s van was stolen from our driveway as we slept one night last week. He was disconsolate not so much because of the value of the van, but because of its contents. Keeping its perfectly sized cooler stocked, he used it as a man cave. He smoked his pipe – verboten in the house – and listened to right-wing radio to inform himself on the nut cases out there, something that I refuse to do. He had a camp chair and fishing equipment for times when he found himself in rural Florida with no deadline. And lots of books and electronic toys and even his mother’s handmade quilts that he used to stretch out for the occasional nap between meetings, even at national conventions.

It turned out the thieves, too, were more interested in the contents than in the van. They cleaned it out, stripping even the floor mats, and left it in a hobo’s nest where sheriff deputies found it. He actually was disappointed because the deductible is too high for insurance to compensate – and we had to pay $130 to the company that the Sheriff’s Office called to tow it. I remember when law enforcement took stolen property to their own impound lot, where it could be recovered with simple proof of ownership. But nowadays everything’s been privatized in the stupid belief that government should use its power to create profits for businesses.

This is where code enforcement comes in. The lot where we collected the van was absolutely covered in code violations. Weeds were higher than my head, providing perfect habitat for rats and other vermin. It also contained a dozen moldy campers and mobile homes, with doors and windows so covered by jungle growth that they probably had not been opened for a decade. The rusting barbed-wire fence around it invited infection for anyone who might have encountered it, and this entire public nuisance was near the homes of poor children who might see it as a great place to explore.

And the Sheriff’s Office contracted with this business? And Code Enforcement presumably has known for years about it and other similar slumlord properties? Once again, I wish we had a county mayor so I’d know whose number to call.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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