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updated 2:54 PM UTC, Jul 28, 2018

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A small example of government caring can do much to alleviate broad public cynicism

At a time when cynicism about government, and elected officials in particular, is at its zenith, there's some satisfaction in encountering those occasions when government has a more caring demeanor.

Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess' announcement that he is seeking re-election reminded me of one of those occasions because he was a player in what to most people would be a minor incident but was one that had a larger import for me because it grew out of a column I had done.

The point of the column, which I think has increasing relevance, was that "elected officials need to weigh the implications of anger that constituents feel toward government in certain situations and consider how to bring private-sector principles of customer-friendliness into their thinking."

To many friends and those who read the column, there was an amusing, and some said typical, overreaction on my part to two traffic-related citations, one for $42 for parking wrong against a building and the other a $124 ticket for rolling through a stop sign in my neighborhood at 6:46 one morning.

The point of the column was that it may be at government's peril when citizens, particularly in tough economic times, find serious financial impact from traffic-related brushes with the law and are angered out of a sense that the penalty exceeded what was just or even moral.


I wrote that I would go to court on the two tickets and make the point to the magistrate that the cost of the minor moving violation had come during Christmas season and for some in Seattle, that $124 could have a serious financial impact on their holiday.


I said I would suggest to the magistrate that since "customer friendliness" was important to government's relations with its "constituents," I was going to ask permission to make a donation equal to the ticket amount to charity rather than pay it to the city. That would make me feel better about the citations, I said.


A number of those who received the column urged a follow-up column once I had met with the magistrate.


When I arrived in court and handed Seattle Municipal Court Magistrate Lisa M. Leone the column and explained why I was in front of her to discuss the tickets, she said "there is certainly a lot controversy about this issue, and a lot of angry people," then added: "And a lot of poor people are involved."


I could perceive that she cared about that fact and was sensitive to my suggestion that since charitable organizations are squeezed as never before, I'd write a check for the amount owed to any charity she designated. But she noted she lacked the power to issue that sort of order.


I explained my point about it being in her hands and the hands of her peers to be the instruments of customer friendliness that so often seems lacking, especially in cases where merely the law and not a moral issue is involved, though admittedly some might debate me over a beer about breaking the law basically being a moral issue.


To my surprise, she said she was going to change the parking ticket to a warning, then offered me the opportunity to do community service from a list of approved non-profits, for a number of hours equal to the $124 citation amount.


She said she lacked the authority to tell me to make a check out to the charity for that amount but was accepting of my statement that I felt compelled to do that.


It was clear that while she logically wouldn't share the information with me, there obviously were a number of citizens for whom the traffic-incident costs would pose a serious hardship who found themselves fortunate enough to be in the hands of a magistrate who fit the image of "justice."


So I wrote a follow-on column about what happened, with the lead: "It turns out that Justice does have a smile on her face, even when challenged to defend the workings of government against accusations of possible heavy-handedness."

Councilman Burgess comes into the picture because perhaps a year later, following a parking-ticket incident (I always go to court if I think I was treated unfairly) I went to court again and wound up again before the same Magistrate Leone.


I asked her if she remembered we had met earlier and that I had done a column on our encounter and she said she did. And she told me that after the column came out, Burgess, who had also seen the column, spent the bulk of a couple of days sitting in her office as those seeking relief from their traffic-infraction costs appeared before her.


"I think he genuinely wanted to get an understanding of those who came to appeal their tickets," she told me.


Now any politician seeking re-election wants to have good things said about them. But even Burgess might chuckle at the idea that relating this court incident could help his re-election.


But I've carried a respect for him since then because little things that are unpublicized tell much about the person.

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