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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Booze Peddlers & Fireworks Vendors

July 14, 2017

KALAMAZOO – For years, the classic dilemma facing elected officials has been this: When it comes to controversial, hot-button issues, do they do the easy ‘populist’ thing their constituents seem to want – or use their better judgment?

Err on one side, and you could find your career over after the next election. Make a mistake the other way, and you could be saddling your city, state or country with bad policy.

But now, some think there’s an ominous new development: What about lawmakers who neither do what is right nor what their voters want?

There are signs this may be a new dismaying feature of the age of term limits and hopelessly gerrymandered districts.

Consider these two examples:

First, the case of Gerry Hoffmann, a partner in a small ad agency who is also a landlord and president of the Edison Neighborhood Association in the section of Kalamazoo where he lives. The homes are older, and members are committed to keeping the neighborhood from going downhill.

Part of doing that has meant controlling the number of liquor stores. “We just fought another booze peddler last year. And get this—they wanted to set up shop directly across the street from a substance abuse center,” he told me.

The Edison Neighborhood Association managed to keep the liquor store out – partly because the Michigan Liquor Control Commission has a rule that new liquor stores have to be at least half a mile away from existing ones.

But to his astonishment, Hoffman suddenly heard the chairman of the liquor control commission saying he wanted to abolish that rule, which has been in force for decades.

Andrew DeLoney told a reporter for Michigan Radio that he wanted to get rid of the half-mile requirement, so that mom-and-pop stores that sell beer and wine can sell hard stuff, too.

“They’re denied the opportunity to grow their business because of this arbitrary rule,” said DeLoney, who did public relations for the restaurant history before getting his job.

Gerry Hoffmann was furious, and immediately wrote the liquor commission chair. “Why don’t you ask public safety where crimes occur? Liquor stores don’t just sell Twinkies. They are a common meeting place for other drug sales, prostitution and other crimes,” he argued.

He concluded, “Please excuse my anger, but you obviously don’t understand how these crime centers affect real people.”

To be fair, as of this writing, no final decision has been made about ending the half-mile rule. But if that were to happen, it isn’t clear what, if any recourse, citizens would have.

“I wrote to my state representative and senator, but I don’t suppose it will help,” a resigned Hoffmann said.

But if he is disgusted with a lack of response from his government, Karen Mouradjian is furious at what the state has done about fireworks. Five years ago, the legislature passed a law that essentially took most of the controls off them.

Now, in many places, the Fourth of July sounds and feels like a combat zone. Mouradjian, whose dream for years has been to become a lawyer, lost an entire night of studying. Not just because of the noise – she felt she had to sit on her porch well into the wee hours to prevent her house in the working-class suburb of Eastpointe from being burned down.

“My yard is a total mess. Dumb asses down the street were shooting them off all night and I could hear metal hitting my awning.” According to the law, nobody is supposed to set off fireworks between midnight and 8 a.m.

But few pay attention, and there’s little indication that police in most places make much of an effort to enforce the law. When Karen Mouradjian, who is in her 40s, asked neighbors to stop, she said they sneered and swore at her.

She said that the police said there was nothing they could do. Mouradjian was probably smart to guard her house. The same night, a fire caused by fireworks set after 1 a.m. did $150,000 damage to a home in Sterling Heights.

That was far from an isolated case. The Mayor of Warren, who patrolled with police much of the night, said residents complained of being forced to “live in a war zone.”

Numerous legislators in both parties, having been swamped with complaints, have introduced new bills to repeal or modify the misnamed “Fireworks Safety Act of 2011.”

But they are apparently going nowhere, thanks largely to State Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Oshtemo Township), chair of the House Regulatory Reform Committee.

He told a reporter that he hadn’t heard many complaints in his “neck of the woods” and wasn’t interested in changing the law, except maybe for some “technical fixes.”

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof indicated he wasn’t interested in changing either.

That enraged Karen Mouradjian, who is still studying for her final courses and her bar exam. She admits fantasizing about using her law degree to push this issue.

“Those selling fireworks should be enjoined in lawsuits regarding property damage and injury to animals or humans,” she said, adding “Money does not come before public safety.”

My guess is that most people in the state, maybe even the legislators, would enthusiastically agree. What’s surprising is that their elected leaders don’t act like they do.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

July 13, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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