Lileks: In plain speech, updating the city charter will be an epic task

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 2013 - 11:52 PM

Got a recorded message from the city the other night, warning me about street sweeping. Move my car or it might be towed. It’s a Leaf Emergency!

I was warned not to push my boulevard leaves into the gutters, which possibly prompts some people to say, “Hey, never thought of that,” and get out the rake.

Our boulevard trees dumped about 20,000 leaves into the street this week, and I wondered if I’d be cited for Excessive Leaf Realignment. Was there even such a law? Who knows? So I read the city charter and everything attached.

Well, I skimmed it. The recent election had a referendum to rewrite the city charter with an eye toward “brevity” and “plain language,” and I was curious what it sounded like now. As you might expect, the language has the miserable tedium of legal lingo; just reading a paragraph feels like swallowing bran flakes without milk.

No portion of this section shall be construed to misconstrue any section whose portion conflicts with the subordinate purpose of the amendments duly enacted to ensure the coming of Baal, the Dark Goat God, praise be the sulfurous bleats of his hindquarters.

It could say that; no one ever gets to the end of the paragraph. By all means, yes. Make it plain. Depends what they mean by plain language, though.

So, the city is like, a big place with lots of people like, doing stuff. So no one gets bent out of shape over what some dude does even though it’s, like, legal and stuff, the charter’s gonna be like totally clear.

For a modern audience familiar with the style of the Internet, they might use eye-grabbing click-worthy subheads:

16 Ordinances About Dog Excrement You Probably Don’t Know

This Restaurant Inspector Explains the Rat Problem with Five Adorable GIFs

Nine Signs You’re Totally Nailing That Liquor License Renewal Thing

Anyway. I scrolled through the laws, looking for something outdated and stupid a columnist can mock — you know, It shall be illegal to moisten horse nostrils on the Sabbath — that sort of thing. The add-ons over the years reflect the passions and botherations of their times: In the ’90s, ordinances banning the sale of any food not in “Environmentally Acceptable Packaging.” (This is why you can’t buy ice cream in lead buckets. Meddlers.)

In a previous era, there was an entire section of the law devoted to “Hats, conduct in theaters.” It was illegal to wear a hat during a movie if it interfered unreasonably with the view of the people behind you. This has worked well, since modern movies are no longer ruined by the Stove-Pipe Menace, but a legal code that addresses the problem of large hats and says nothing about idiots texting throughout a movie is not a document that has kept pace with the times.

Of course, there weren’t cops walking through theaters swinging a billy club, hauling out guys whose fedora was three-quarters of an inch over acceptable standards. A law against texters wouldn’t stop them, any more than the current law against panhandlers within 10 feet of an intersection does anything about the supplicants at the highway entrance ramps. The law’s there in case they need it, you suspect.

For example: “No person shall publish or cause to be published any advertisement intended to imply or to be understood that he will restore manly vigor, treat or cure lost manhood, lost power, stricture, gonorrhea, chronic discharges, gleet...”

The days of the Gleet Quacks and the Stricture Bunco Racket behind us, so this can probably go.

The liquor laws are interminable, but helpful. They define “restaurant” as a place where “… the meal service consists of no less than four (4) entrees, complete with vegetable, salad, bread or rolls, or sandwiches or other principal food items.”

You wonder how many bars tried to get around the four entree option thusly: “Hamburger; cheeseburger; open-faced hamburger; Cheesy Twins (one patty, cut in two.”) This is where the city absolutely has to step in.

We could probably benefit from a total revision of all the city laws along the lines of “brevity” and “plain language,” so you know whether you’re breaking the law by wearing a hat to a movie about a cafe that has three entrees. But it won’t be easy.

A total of 13,338 people said no to the referendum. By Goshen, what madness is afoot that the otiose and carbuncles language of the law shall be perverted into the breezy demotic patois of the gutter? Nay, a thousand times nay, they said.

One suspects they were lawyers who will lose their jobs when no one needs to hire them to figure out what the charter actually says. Perhaps they should have used ranked choice. First choice: plain language. Second choice: leave it alone. Third: translate to Latin! It might be slightly more comprehensible than it is now.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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