Sewers and Leashes: A Local Story


Hillsdale, MI. This is a true story.  It happened once upon a time in a place I do not now live.

After an arduous campaign I was elected to the city council in a small town that was growing very rapidly, which meant that money was changing hands at a pace the little community was not used to.  Only two years before, the Great Issue in the town was a ballot proposal to offer likker by the drink.  The woman who was most opposed had tyrannized her husband (and her neighbors) for many years against this particular abomination.  With new builders moving in, however, some opposition to her emerged, and thus the vote.  It turned out 418-1 in favor of the proposal.  When we moved into the community older residents were still speculating about the ways and the means of her husband’s suffering.

The new rules having been established, during my campaign there were, occasionally, adult beverages in evidence.  This has something to do with the story.

In office I was part of the Established Order.  Things went along all right until our city manager was accused by the resident demagogue on the council (he had ambitions of moving up to the position of Commissioner of Public Safety, or whatever we called our head cop; beware of people who actually want to be sheriffs) of conspiring with one of the local developers to get kick-backs on sewer connections.  Now, this is heady stuff.  There was big money in sewer connections.  The metropolitan newshounds took notice.  Our little (but growing) area came under scrutiny.  But sewers, it turned out, were not our deepest problem.

One Monday I drove to the old house that was still City Hall, expecting a routine council meeting and an early trip to the new local saloon, which was also in an old house.  I found, instead, about a zillion cars and trucks outside the City Hall, and the council chambers filled with at least two zillion Young Mothers.  Being the husband of a Young Mother I understood the danger.  I had no idea of the ordeal that was to come.

A three-year-old had been attacked by a dog–not hurt too badly, but hurt–and the Young Mothers were there to protest that the city was responsible for the attack because there was no leash law.  A citizen had let his dog run wild and amuck and a little girl had suffered.  A similar thing had happened to my own daughter about three years before, in another community that also had no leash law.  I didn’t try to change the law, I tried to kill the dog, and would gladly have done something similar to its owner, who blamed my daughter for arousing the monster.  I tried to empathize with the Young Mothers, but they were not there to blame the dog or its owner; they insisted that the culpable entity was the city.

Their champion was the above-cited demagogue, who, realizing that the constabulary post he had aspired to was unavailable, now had transferred his ambitions to the position of Animal Control Officer (no “dog-catcher” for him).  He had contacted the state Municipal League, whose main job was to Write Laws for the Untutored Masses in Local Communities, and was armed with a model leash law that would of course prevent all such further attacks, as well as improve the health of the community and make safe the bottoms of our shoes.  With two zillion Young Mothers behind him, who could resist his logic?

Well, I did.  Sometimes, in those days long ago my calm and prudential nature was overruled by dark forces, and I suggested that we consider alternatives to a costly all-community program that would raise taxes and may not address the problem.  The Municipal League model law was many times longer than our city charter and besides, none of us had had a chance to read it.  Could we not postpone a vote until such time as careful consideration could be given?  As scripture says, the people murmured against me, but a motion to postpone squeaked through.  The bill was to be discussed in public forums and at council meetings for six weeks before a final vote.

I did not anticipate that this would give new energy to the newshounds who already were suspicious that corruption and lack of concern for the ordinary people was the attitude of our regressive council.  Our demagogue became their favorite.  His picture was in the newspapers every day, with quotations, such as, “The mothers of this community are disappointed that Dr. Willson and his close associates among the developers [hint, hint] oppose a bill that will clearly bolster the confidence this community has in its leaders.”  My telephone rang a lot.  This was before caller ID, so I took to gambling that I would miss something important by not answering.

For six weeks I tried at council meetings to explain that the advocates of Progress had the responsibility to make the case that what they proposed would address the problem, that representative government required the city council to examine less costly alternatives, and that we should, at the very least, find out if there was indeed an Animal Control Problem in the city.  Our demagogue and the two zillion Young Mothers were not buying.

On the night the final vote was scheduled it became clear to me that there was indeed to be a leash law and an Animal Control bureaucracy in our community.  Instead of relaxing and giving in to the inevitable, however, I again allowed the dark forces to surface.  Looking back, I think it was because there were eighteen news representatives present, and to all of them the leash law and the sewer connections had blended into one big evidence of corruption.  They gave me an idea.

So I said, “You have convinced me.  But why discriminate against dogs?  Dogs are mostly sweet things.  There are really dangerous cats in our community.”  I got warmed up about that time and started offering amendments to the bill, calling for leashes on not only dogs and cats, but gerbils, certain rare birds, iguanas, monkeys, and the most dangerous of all, pet snapping turtles.  Such was the evangelical enthusiasm of our demagogue, all the amendments passed.  True story.

Seventeen of the eighteen newshounds got the story wrong, deliberately lied, or said in their stories that Dr. Willson had managed to cover up the sewer connection corruption with the diversionary tactic of a leash law that he had introduced several weeks earlier.  The one who got it right, a part-time reporter for a local pennysaver, was laughing so hard over our adult beverages at the local old house saloon after the meeting that he forgot to file his story for almost two weeks. I love local government.


  1. I love the smell of democracy in the morning!

    Great story, John. And thank for doing what government does best: namely, protecting the common good against the vicious evil that is stray iguanas. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  2. The beauty of local gummint! Tried it myself re: another matter, ended up serving time in the local and county facilities but missed out on the state and federal, though heavily fined in both arenas!
    I will say that having taken a stand at the barricades that first time and experiencing the thrill of battle, repeating the political act is not only not a problem but eagerly anticipated.
    One gets the impression that we will either behave as men with some knowledge of republicanism and take our stand accordingly or we will mimic the behavior of the professional servile class and sit, huddled, with our hands out, begging for sustenance from some apparatchick.

  3. I can hear H L Mencken laughing on his cloud.

    But alas, George Kaufman was correct when he said satire is what closes on Saturday night.

  4. When the Law is based upon who moaned loudest most recently, you can count on a lot of moaning done loudly. You can also count on the standard issue demagogue you describe…said characters are masters at mining money and notoriety from the troubles of others. The levels of Florid Indignation they put on are fine local theatrical productions.

  5. Dangerous dogs are a major source of trouble to city management. Here in Illinois, the dogs have a very powerful lobby in Springfield. Every dog gets one free bite on a human, before they can be considered dangerous. Dogs know this. The state will not allow any municipality to single out a breed or several breeds with a ban. So, a village or city cannot impose a ban on Rottweilers or pit bulls. It is not just young mothers who get concerned about the 120 pound pit bull next door, who is foaming at the mouth and straining on its kite string “restraint” while casting a glassy eyed but hostile glare at their children. No, it is people like postal workers like the one in Galesburg who required more than 90 stitches to close up the bite wounds from a pit bull that cane through a screen door to bite him. Galena has imposed a “reasonable person” test for dangerous dogs, and so far it has held up in court. If a reasonable person thinks a Galena dog is dangerous, then the owner is required to build a kennel for it that resembles a fort in the Maginot Line. One would think that the Concerned Young Mothers would be able to out-lobby the dogs, but that is not the case. Perhaps our rulers recall President Truman’s wise saying that if you want a friend in Washington D.C. get yourself a dog, and apply it to themselves.

    If you really want to get the populace riled up, propose a new fence ordinance. Anyone who does not think that the human species is territorial has never gone through a municipal fence war. Normally fearless city managers have been known to get weak kneed when fences are involved in a dispute.

  6. Just back from Romania–I have great stories to tell about the Front Porch Republic that exists under the official “republic,” but your story caught my attention, because I have two related stories, one from my service on the city council and one from Romania.

    In our city, it seems we were killing the stray dogs all wrong, in a decompression chamber (think doggie holocaust.) After months of agitation, we agreed to have them killed by lethal injection. Of course, this was very hard on the animal control workers, since it required personally killing each dog, which could be dangerous and and was psychologically difficult. After a few years, we quietly went back to the chamber.

    In Romania, Ceausescu bulldozed houses to make way for gray Stalinist apartment blocks. People couldn’t take their dogs with them, and so they multiplied. When the new government tried to round them up and kill them, the NGOs protested about the “cruelty,” and demanded that the dogs be neutered and tagged. So now everywhere you go there are stray dogs. Watch your step. At night, they hold barking contests. And be careful not to wander into some spot of ground they consider their own; they will defend certain territories.

    What unites both cases is that the interests of dogs are more important than the concerns of real people. Four legs good; two legs bad.

  7. I like both of the stories, John; and Steve’s Illinois outrages. My story is not really about dogs, of course, but about dealing with one’s neighbors. Similar things jump up all the time when we tell such real stories, whether about neighborhoods, families (the place when you go there, says Robert Frost, they have to take you in), or churches. Once you get to the state or national level the stories become more and more abstract, even unreal. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that dogs do “energize the base” at the local level. I remember the farmers in my home town spending countless hours talking about their horses. They were all dairy farmers, but nobody had any particular attachment to the cows, which gave them what income they had, but those horses inspired love, tall tales, lifelong enmities, and several layers of gambling. Which is another way of saying that what’s local is what’s real, one of the main points, I take it, about this site.

  8. But whatever are we to do about feral city councilpersons? A city near me has had a number of council members over the past 20 years who make bad-tempered pit bulls look like canaries.
    One of them was obsessed with what should be considered porch furniture, and spent most of her term on that less-than-burning issue. Of course we had a number of feral mayors also.

    Can we not have a leash law for such?

    Btw, an earlier poster, John Medaille, seemed far too fascinated with the decompression chamber for me to want to be alone with him ever.

  9. anomdebus,

    Good question about the press. The metropolitan area papers were all represented, including two (a morning and an evening, one of which no longer exists) major newspapers. Almost every semi-independent community still had newspapers in those days, and the ones within fifty miles of the city were all there. The guy who got things right (and didn’t lie) was the owner of an independent pennysaver. He lived in our neighborhood and everybody knew him, and he probably would have had to move if he got it wrong. There was no TV represented, but one radio guy that I wouldn’t talk with. I remember that just about the time this incident happened Joe Namath defended President Nixon by saying that if the media quoted and told the truth about the Prez the same amount that they did about NFL quarterbacks, then Nixon must be one of the really, really good men.

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