Over the last few days, I’ve become very conscious of the extent to which rules, interpretation of rules, objections to rules, negotiation of rules and enforcement of rules permeates my daily life.
On Friday, I spent time with members of the Florida Local Government Coalition discussing dealing with difficult members of the public. In two role-playing activities, rules took center stage: the rules an imaginary city placed upon the erection of fences and sheds, and the rules a neighborhood sought to impose on a city or county’s use of lighting on a ball field in that neighborhood. Saturday, I watched a highlight clip of the Tampa Bay Rays/Boston Red Sox game in which a Boston fan interferes with the path of a fly ball to right field, potentially depriving his team of a home run and resulting in a ground-rule double. Rules again.
Meanwhile, closer to home, there are ongoing discussions with several of the kids about the requirements for having a pet of their own and the rules for managing that pet in the home.
Rules. They’re absolutely everywhere.
Rules establish expectations. Rules invariably involve at least two potentially conflicting parties, defining what each is required to do or not do, the limits of discretion, the extent of privilege. If I tell one of my kids that they can have their own pet when they clean their room and maintain it in a reasonably clean state without pestering for a month, I’ve not only told them what is required of them given their goal. I’ve also committed myself to allowing or facilitating the achievement of that goal if that child follows the rules of good housekeeping in their room.
For my part, I expect that I won’t be bugged about the cat, dog or rodent a child wants for a while (at least a month). If I am petitioned again, I can point to the rule and settle the matter.
For my children’s parts, they clearly expect that if they keep their room neat for a month, they can have their pet.
Expectations set by the articulation and enforcement of rules.
Social contract theorists, among others, argue that this is precisely where rules came from. They arose out of a desire to reduce the frequency and intensity of conflict. They arose to ensure that conflicts could be resolved according to some standard other than simple brute force or guile. They arose, in short, to establish social order.
But because life is much more complex than any rule ever can fully accommodate, there are times when an otherwise sensible rule becomes unworkable, an obviously unjust burden on a legitimate exercise of freedom. We’ve all had the experience of knowing what ought to happen in a particular situation and being unable to make it happen if we follow the rules.
In such situations, some will simply ignore the rule. Some will contrive an exception, justifying that different treatment of this case in terms they hope will resonate favorably with other, more overarching rules and principles.
And some, of course, will change the rules.
This appears to be precisely what the city of Madeira Beach has done. The particular focus of attention has been the development of additional hotel properties in the Pinellas County city. Pinellas County saw tourism records tumble in 2013, and 2014 has been strong as well. Hotel and motel occupancy rates are high. The market seems ripe for additional hotels, with the additional jobs and additional tourist dollars they would bring to the city.
What Madeira Beach learned was that such developments often don’t quite fit in the existing code. The adjustments to the code might be very small, or fairly substantial, but adjustments frequently seem to be required.
The questions the city faced were, do you hold to your rules, do you simply ignore your rules, do you carve out exceptions for specific circumstances or do you change the rules?
Last week, the City Commission opted for what looks like a combination of options 3 and 4. The development code revisions being adopted, in effect, codify the idea that exceptions to the rules are appropriate and will be entertained when the justification is sound.
City Manager Shane Crawford was quoted by Josh Boatwright in the Tampa Tribune as making clear that the new notion of flexible rules wasn’t an abandonment of regulations. “We’re not going to give you a blank check,” he noted. But a can-do attitude and an open door for discussing options is what they seem to be giving developers.
It’s an interesting approach. There is more than a little that can be said in favor of establishing the expectation that people who wish to invest in the city will find that city staff want to work with them. There’s also much to be said for clarifying that, in the end, the justification for exceptions must make sense in terms, not simply of the developers’ profits, but the city and its citizens’ long-term interests.