A reader recently asked how to get things done or changed locally. Another excellent question. Of course, the answer changes depending on which municipality you want to access. Having been recently elected to Town Meeting in Needham, MA, I’ll give you a quick glimpse into what our local political structure looks like, and then give you some ideas of how to find out what your local government structure might be.
Needham is run by a variety of local elected officials. Generally speaking, the Board of Selectmen runs the show. Think of the Board of Selectmen like a state governor — they are the executive branch of our local government. A number of other boards have jurisdiction or control over specific areas — health, zoning (via the Planning Board), schools, housing, etc. The other boards are kind of like the governor’s cabinet and various executive agencies — they work on local legislation and regulation about their specific areas of expertise.
Needham Town Meeting is the legislative branch, just like the state legislature. Town Meeting Members are elected as well, and serve for 3-year terms. As with all legislative branches, Town Meeting votes on and passes local legislation, represented in the Town Bylaws, as well as the annual budget. (Note, Needham’s Zoning Bylaws are available separately.) Minutes from Town Meeting are publicly available, and Town Meeting is open to the public, but anyone wishing to speak at Town Meeting must be formally recognized by the Moderator to officially have the floor. The Moderator also makes a number of important appointments for Needham’s local government, including the members of the Finance Committee.
Then, of course, there’s the actual day-to-day functionality of the town, which responsibility generally falls to the Town Manager and her designees, as well as various local offices and departments. The Town Manager is appointed by the Selectmen for a three-year term. Without putting too fine a point on it, the Town Manager makes it all happen. The Town Clerk serves as the primary record keeper — an ever so important and often thankless and unnoticed job.
How do I know all of this? I know from experience and my own personal involvement, but it’s also written in the Town Charter. The Charter and the Bylaws are the Town’s primary governance documents. Think of the Charter like the state constitution and the Bylaws like the state statutes.
If you want to know who’s who and what’s what in your local government, the easiest place to look for general information is the municipal website, but if you really want the details, get into the governance documents. For example, let’s look at the Town of Hempstead, in Long Island, NY. The website indicates that Hempstead is controlled by the Town Supervisor, who serves as both CEO and CFO for the town. The website also shows six (6) Town Council members, who appear to be the legislative body. So, the Hempstead Supervisor seems to be akin to the Needham Board of Selectmen AND the Needham Town Manager, and the Hempstead Town Council seems to be akin to the Needham Town Meeting, though with 254 members, Town Meeting is vastly more robust in its representation, as New England tends to be with its local governments. If the Hempstead website organization is any indication, it seems the Supervisor and the Council collectively comprise the Town Board, but there is no useful explanation about the so-called Board because clicking on “Town Board” brings you directly to the Supervisor’s page. I also see a Town Clerk and a Tax Collector and several other local government offices and positions, who seem to be independent of the so-called Board. I don’t seen an equivalent to the Needham Charter, though I do see the Hempstead Town Code, which is potentially akin to the Needham Bylaws. (Notably, a search on the Hempstead website for “charter” gave me the town history as a search result, which is quite lengthy and rather fascinating. Hempstead started with Town Meeting too, but evolved over time.) Interestingly, I can readily find the code-dictated salaries for the Supervisor and Council members, as well as the legislative authority for apportioning the districts of the Council members, but I don’t readily see the government structure in the local codes. (Further digging suggests this may be the case because the town government structure in New York is actually dictated by something called the Town Law of the State of New York, rather than each municipality determining its own governance structure. I haven’t read it, but a quick glance at this seems to confirm my suspicion.) Nonetheless, what I’ve found in the code seems to confirm what the website indicates — the Supervisor is the executive and the Council is the legislative branch.
If you want to get something done locally, best to look into your municipal website and governance documents to figure it out. Then contact the people in charge. If you’re not sure you’re talking to the right person, ask for guidance. Once you find the right person(s), keep at it. Persist, my friends. Let’s get it done, whatever it is.
A reader recently asked: “What is a ‘statute’ and how is it different from a ‘law?’ Or is it the same thing?”
An excellent question. After all, words matter. Words matter a lot. Indeed, punctuation matters too (so says the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit). I’ll leave Oxford commas and the like for another time. For now, let’s talk about some of the words commonly used by lawyers, legislators, judges, law professors, lobbyists, government executives, and others involved in local, state, and federal governance.
Often, people use the terms “statute” and “law” interchangeably. This is not exactly accurate. All statutes are laws, but not all laws are statutes. To really explain this, I have to give a bit of information about how statutes become statutes, which of course involves some additional vocab along the way.
Legislators (Congresspeople) write bills. Bills with any sort of traction are sent to a Committee (such as Ways and Means, Appropriations, Budget, Ethics, Homeland Security, Judiciary, and a whole host of others… check out the complete list of Congressional Committees if you feel curious). If the Committee approves the bill, then the bill is sent to the floor of the chamber of Congress in which the bill was filed, either the House of Representatives or the Senate. (The term “chamber of Congress” is used interchangeably with the term “house of Congress” but I think this gets confusing because, well, one of the chambers is called the House.) If the House or the Senate votes to approve the bill, then the bill is sent to the other chamber for its approval. Usually there is some political maneuvering here, with various drafts of the bill going back and forth between the House and the Senate until each chamber can secure enough votes on the current draft to get approval from both chambers. Once both chambers approve the bill, it goes to the President. If he (perhaps she in the future) signs the bill, it becomes a statute. If POTUS vetoes the bill and does not sign it, then it goes back to Congress for a potential veto override. If each chamber secures enough (more than originally required) votes to override the POTUS veto, then the bill still passes and becomes a statute, even though POTUS vetoed it. If the House and Senate cannot secure enough votes for an override, then the bill fails. (Note, we just covered a lot of opportunities for a bill to pass or fail. It has to pass every step, or achieve a veto override, to become a statute.)
Once a bill becomes a statute, it is published as a slip law, as part of the session laws, and as part of the United States Code. Generally, when people talk about federal statutes, they are referencing the U.S. Code; the language is the same regardless of the source, but it is probably organized differently. A slip law is the specific statute itself, flying solo, and it gets its own number (in sequence, of course). If you’ve ever seen or heard of a reference to “Public Law Number [X],” that’s the slip law version of the statute. Session laws are all of the slip laws for a particular session of Congress compiled into a single source. Slip laws and session laws are published by the Office of the Federal Register.
Slip laws usually make changes to existing statutes, so they read something like this: “Cross out the seventh word in the 42nd line of statute 1234 and replace it with the following text” and “insert, after the words ‘legislating can be so complicated’ the following new section, to be numbered section 15.” The U.S. Code deals with all of those internal references and actually inserts the new legislative language into the right spots in the existing set of statutes. Think of it a bit like editing a really long Word document; the slip laws and session laws show the tracked changes, while the U.S. Code is the clean copy.
So, what was the original question? Oh yeah… what’s a statute and is it different from a law? Now we know the statute is the bill in its final form, passed into law by Congress and/or POTUS. (Note the same process applies in state government as well, except it’s a governor instead of POTUS who gets to sign or veto the bill, and it’s a state legislature instead of Congress doing all the legislating.) The statute is a law. Period.
Really, though, there are other things that qualify as laws, if laws are rules set by government that must be followed by the population at large (or rather the parties to whom the laws apply). Take regulations, for example (often called “regs” for short). Frequently, statutes direct a particular federal agency to promulgate regulations (that’s just a fancy way of saying write and publish the darn regs) to further implement the intent of the statute. I think of regulations as laws too, given the definition I provided at the beginning of this paragraph. (I’m not the only one to define the term “law” this way.) Regulations are published in the Federal Register. We’ll save the regulatory rule-making process for another post.
That seems like enough for now. For more
super dry totally interesting vocab, check out the Senate glossary. It is quite comprehensive.
Lately I’ve received a lot of requests for what is essentially “Law School 101” information. Maybe you already know some (or all!) of the information in these posts. Maybe you knew some of the information once upon a time, but have since forgotten it. Maybe the information is completely new to you. Whatever background you bring to these posts, I invite you to read on, and hopefully this body of work will help some people, in some way.
The federal government has three (3) branches: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The executive branch consists of the President of the United States (POTUS), his Cabinet, and all offices and agencies falling under the control of those Cabinet members. (Cabinet members include the Secretaries of State, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Education, Commerce, Labor, Defense, and the Interior.) The Legislature consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, collectively called Congress. The judicial branch is the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), the federal courts of appeals (largely based on geographic region), nearly 100 federal district courts (also based on geographic region), and a number of other courts based on substantive matters (such as bankruptcy courts). The interplay between the three branches of government is dictated by the Constitution. Lawyers, politicians, and others working in government or related fields commonly refer to this interplay using terms such as “separation of powers” and “checks and balances.”
So, how do all those people in power get there? A quick review. The President is elected every four (4) years by the Electoral College. The President appoints a Cabinet, who must be confirmed by the Senate. (Ah ha! A check on the President’s power.) Members of the Legislature are elected by the voters. Senators serve terms of six (6) years, with approximately one-third of the Senators up for election every 2 years. Representatives serve terms of two (2) years and seats in the House are up for election every even numbered year. SCOTUS justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Once on the bench, justices have lifetime appointments unless they resign, retire, or are removed through an impeachment process.
Ok, now the people are in power. What exactly are those powers? Here’s an overly simplified explanation. Congress makes statutes by writing bills, voting on the bills, and then sending those bills to the President for a signature making the bill into an official statute. (If the President does not sign the bill, Congress can override that Presidential veto with a certain greater number of votes.) Congress also controls the money and holds the power to declare war. The President is the head of state and the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. As Commander, POTUS can send troops into battle without an official declaration of war from Congress. As the head of state, POTUS can sign bills into law, issue certain Executive Orders, and control the Executive Branch, which executive offices and agencies create and issue regulations that interpret and give greater context to the statutes enacted by Congress. SCOTUS reviews problems with statutes, regulations, other government actions, and various private activity to determine whether anything conflicts with the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and all subsequent Amendments. If so, the Constitution wins. SCOTUS may also review problems for a number of other reasons, but only if those reasons for review are set out in Article III of the Constitution. You see, SCOTUS is a court of what’s called limited jurisdiction – it can only review cases specifically delegated to it, and the rest are reserved for lower federal or state courts. (By the way, the same thing happens with Congress and POTUS… specific powers are granted to the federal government and the rest are relegated to the states. This is called federalism.)
To get a case before SCOTUS, first you file a petition to be heard. The justices then decide whether or not to grant that petition. Every case filed receives at least this initial review. Most cases are rejected at this point, but a few will go through to a hearing. If the case is granted a hearing, then you know you’ve got an interesting problem. The parties submit briefs to the justices explaining their arguments and points of view. In addition, some “friends of the court,” or amici curiae in Latin, might submit briefs explaining other arguments. Each “friend” brief is commonly called an “amicus” brief. SCOTUS itself decides whether or not any particular amicus brief may be filed.
SCOTUS has nine (9) justices, each appointed by POTUS and confirmed by the Senate. Since these justices cannot be removed except in very rare circumstances and receive a lifetime appointment, those appointments are extremely important in shaping American law. This is particularly true because there really isn’t any check or balance on SCOTUS decisions, except for a subsequent set of SCOTUS justices reversing a prior decision. Reversing prior decisions, however, is rare because of the importance of precedent and the concept of stare decisis.
The stark problems with the nuclear option just exercised by the GOP Senators and Gorsuch’s appointment to the bench should be apparent. Once seated, a SCOTUS justice gets one of only nine votes FOR THE REST OF HIS OR HER LIFE. Further, once that vote is cast, whatever the majority decision is, it’s very likely here to stay. Few moments in American democracy bear comparable need for separation of powers and appropriate checks and balances.
The GOP, however, just eroded that Congressional check on Presidential power to appoint a SCOTUS justice (and I haven’t even mentioned what those same GOP Senators did to Merrick Garland, the person who should be sitting on the SCOTUS bench instead of Gorsuch).
The very fabric of our democracy just ripped like the seat of someone’s pants.
Did you hear it? Do you feel the breeze?
I haven’t blogged in a while… apparently it took a story like the one I saw this morning to get me started again.
According to the articles I’ve read (here, here, here and here, and there are numerous others out there), Wayne Scott Harrington operated a dental clinic in Tulsa, OK and failed to take even the most basic safety precautions to protect his patients from a host of health problems. Some of these basic safety precautions include, oh, using non-rusted equipment, sanitizing the equipment, using clean and previously unused needles and drug vials, maintaining infection-protection protocols, and regular upkeep for the sterilization machines. Basic things we’d all expect our health care professionals to do to keep themselves and us, their patients, safe. Harrington’s failure to do these things (his defense is that he left issues of cleanliness, sterilization, and drug procedures to his staff) is not just disgusting; it led to some currently unknown number of his patients contracting hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and/or HIV. Government officials are notifying some 7,000 current and former patients that they should be tested. Can you imagine getting a letter from the state health department saying that you might have HIV or hepatitis because your dentist couldn’t bother cleaning his equipment or getting new equipment when the old stuff rusted? Unreal. It’s just unreal.
Notably, all of the articles I’ve read place the blame entirely on Harrington. (I’ve purposely removed the title of “Dr.” because if the allegations are true, I don’t think he deserves that kind of respect.) They make him out to be the sole bad guy. The reports also indicate that he’s been in practice for 36 years, and state investigative officials have no idea how long these unsanitary, unsafe practices have been happening. Now, I’m surely not defending this kind of behavior, but the articles seem to be missing something. How is it possible that the state or local government entities didn’t pick up on it until now? The Oklahoma Board of Dentistry is charged with investigating and punishing dentists in the state who are “a menace to the public health by reasons of practicing dentistry in an unsafe or unsanitary manner or place.” Okla. Stat. tit. 59, s. 328.32(13). (By the way, the Board is comprised of 11 people, only two of whom are women, and neither of the women are dentists. But that is a separate discussion.) Presumably, the Board issued Harrington a license to practice dentistry and continued to reissue him the same license every year, either with no inspection about the cleanliness of his practice or with reckless disregard of the unsanitary conditions. Apparently, the only reason that any inspection occurred is because a patient tested positive for HIV when the patient had no risk factors, other than having dental work done around the time his doctors estimated he contracted the disease. The OK State Department of Health has no oversight responsibilities for dental offices because they do not require a state facility license to operate. The Tulsa Health Department is involved somehow, probably because Harrington treated a number of Medicaid patients (so yes, likely that means some number of un- or underinsured children are involved), and now offers free testing to the implicated patients. I suspect, though I don’t have time to research it, that certain safety inspections are required for Medicaid providers, meaning that whatever agency office was responsible from the Medicaid perspective also missed the boat for what appears to be at least 6 years.
My point is this. Isn’t it someone’s responsibility to keep tabs on the safety and cleanliness of private practitioners’ offices? In this case, it seems the Board of Dentistry was primarily responsible for this oversight. Either the Board failed to satisfy their duties to protect the public health, or their duties are not defined to include regular health and safety investigations. Both are poor options.
If the allegations are correct, the dentist was wrong. But so was the state. Let’s not ignore the dereliction of duty either on the part of the Board, in failing to timely and appropriately investigate before years of unsafe dental practice, or on the part of the legislature, in failing to assign that duty in the first place.
Jodi Jaecks, a breast cancer and double mastectomy survivor, recently won the right to swim topless at Seattle public pools during adult lap swim times. According to media coverage, the general rule about attire at public pools is that all women must wear tops. (I couldn’t find a direct link to actual policy from the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department.) According to a recent press release from Seattle Parks and Recreation, the decision for Jaecks extends only to her, and only for adult lap swim times. At present, any subsequent similar requests will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Of course, additional case-by-case evaluations seem like an inefficient waste of time, money, and other procedural resources. Why should Parks and Recreation require similarly situated people to go through the appeals process to get essentially the same exception to the rule? Maybe they officials realized this problem; additional coverage of the issue suggests that the Parks and Recreation Superintendent is considering a “wholesale” change to the policy governing attire at public pools, and that such a broad spectrum change wouldn’t destroy the “family friendly” pool environment. (Parks and Recreation offered this “family friendly” argument in support of its initial denial of Jaecks’s request.)
Let’s think a bit about what the Superintendent and any committee members should consider when evaluating a wholesale policy change. There has been much chatter in the press about normalizing visions of breast cancer survivors. (Go here and here for a couple of examples.) There’s also the fact that full bathing suits can be quite painful for women living after double mastectomies. But I want to focus on a broader issue that The Stranger touched upon briefly in its early coverage of Jaecks’s story. How does the current policy apply to trans and queer individuals? A post-op trans FTM person might look similar to Jaecks, but would be allowed to swim topless because he’s a he. A pre-op trans FTM also identifies as a he, but has breasts. So Parks and Recreation would force him to wear a bikini top. After all, the current policy requires “gender appropriate swimwear.” And what about a pre-op MTF? In this case, a woman with no breasts… is she forced to go topless to conform to her current gender designation, socially imposed upon her? (Interestingly, that would produce a result directly opposite of that which Jaecks initially received… a woman with no breasts forced to go *with* a top.) How are cross-dressers treated?
In short, what exactly are the officials trying to cover up through the current policy? It seems to reach beyond breasts and nipples. It seems to reach a much broader policy of covering up bodies that do not conform to traditional notions of sex and gender (not to mention bodies that violate conventional ideas of functionality and ability). Especially in a city known nationwide for its queer and trans activism (and apparently one of 2012’s “Gayest Cities”), in a state whose legislature legalized marriage equality, Seattle Parks and Recreation has much to consider here… beyond breasts.
We occupy spaces, and sometimes, those spaces come at a cost. Let me give you three examples that bring this to a head (or a knee, as the case may be), all dealing with air travel.
A friend on Facebook recently posted this status: “I f*cking hate ‘Economy Plus’ concept. I am tall – give me leg room for free, and stop giving it to the 4’11” person who pays $50 extra.” Now, to be fair, this person really is quite tall… several inches above 6 feet. And it’s pretty easy to see his side of the argument; he physically needs the extra space, so the airline should give it to him. Us shorter folks might appreciate the extra space for, say, easier laptop usage, but it’s not quite the same thing. Regardless, the airlines charge more for the extra space. And in the absence of the extra leg room, both the tall person and the person sitting in front of him/her are — well — uncomfortable for the duration of the flight because of knee or back pain.
Now consider another example… people who physically need more space horizontally rather than vertically. I’m talking about fat people who spill over into the adjacent seat(s). These people could probably make a similar argument to the one offered by the tall folks needing more leg room. Think about it: “I am fat – give me tush room for free, and stop giving it to the thin person who [doesn’t need it].” Again, the argument doesn’t fly (or hasn’t yet). The airlines can charge more for an additional seat, and even require it in some cases. And again, in the absence of the extra side space (i.e., an extra seat), both the fat person and the people on either side of him/her are uncomfortable for the duration of the flight.
The third example serves as a pseudo-remedy for half the people involved in the first scenario. Just a few weeks before my friend’s Facebook post appeared on my news feed, the NYT published this article about a new contraption designed to block the person in front of you from reclining his or her seat. It seems the people most likely to use this “Knee Defender” are the tall people, like my Facebook friend, whose knees are already pretty close to (or right up against) the seat in front of them before the passengers in the seats ahead push the recline button. But isn’t it part of the seat’s functionality (for which people pay) to recline? And if the person in 7C is using this Knee Defender contraption, I bet the person in 6C isn’t too happy about it. 6C paid for the seat. The seat is designed to recline. Isn’t it 6C’s choice to recline and use the functionality for which 6C paid?
The law’s answer is no. The FAA says that the Knee Defender, costing $19.95, is legal. The law also says that the airlines can charge $50 extra for additional leg room and require fat people to purchase a second seat (clearly for more than $50). All three are about a person needing more space than standard coach seats allow. The Knee Defender folks claim they are “standing up for the right of the tall guy to sit down.” One could argue that the airlines, by requiring the purchase of an additional seat or extra leg room, are protecting the rights of the folks who fit in the standard seats. Of course, there’s a fourth option: first class. Tough for many air travelers to afford. And if the spaces in coach are enlarged overall, it stands to reason that the cost of coach will come much closer to the cost of first class… prohibitively expensive in several cases, and likely an unpopular choice for the airlines to make. Let’s assume that the spaces will not be enlarged any time soon.
So whose rights are actually protected by the law? Thin people. Short people. Anyone who purchases a Knee Defender. The Knee Defender manufacturer and the airlines, focusing on their profits. Maybe all’s fair in commerce and air travel. Stop and ask, though… is it really fair? And which parts do you think are fair, while other parts perhaps are not? Is it more fair to make fat people purchase additional seat space than it is to make tall people purchase additional knee space? Why? And what about our friends in 6C and 7C? If 7C isn’t in Economy Plus, is it fair for 6C to have to sit with knees in his or her back for several hours? [Tall folks aren’t (yet) required to pay for Economy Plus.] On the flip side, is it fair to allow 7C to take away 6C’s right to recline?
Maybe the law’s answer should be that the rights to protect are those of the person who purchased the use of a particular space, and anyone who interferes with the use of that space is invading. Or maybe the law’s answer should be that the airlines must accommodate now-larger Americans by increasing the spaces purchased. What would be the costs? And what are the costs we incur in the system as it currently exists?