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The Man Stole Two Hens

If Thomas Jefferson had written “when, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to amend existing section 12.24 B and 19.00 to establish criteria based on public health, safety and welfare, including consideration of negative impact reports CF 84-1021-S3 . . .,” we would still be saluting the Union Jack.

Instead, he laid out in simple terms those elements of history and human need that are the keystones of American freedom, and the document known as the Declaration of Independence led to creation of the United States of America.

Granted, life was simpler then. All the colonists had to do was break ties with England, establish a new nation, fight a war and create a basis for human dignity that would light the world. Nothing to get excited about.

The Los Angeles City Council, on the other hand, must deal with zoning changes, driveway improvements, retirement picnics and the partial funding of an analyst/writer for the alcohol abuse program.

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Which brings me, however circuitously, to Gloria Molina’s brave efforts to make the language of government so clear than even the government can understand it.

Molina, who joined the council a scant two years ago, has been at war with bureaucratic gibberish since the day she took office.

Just last month she demanded once more that official documents, including the council agenda, be reduced to simple declarative sentences whenever possible.

What really got to her was a toxic waste issue brought before the council by the City Planning Department.

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It called for “amending Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 12.24B1 (u) and (v) and existing ordinance (No. 163620) to waive time limits to process conditional use permits, to include the authority for an ad hoc committee per Section 25199.7 . . .” and so on. You get the idea.

Molina, bless her innocent heart, challenged her colleagues to explain what they were about to vote on. None of them could.

Encouraged by this inability to understand an issue of environmental importance in a city drowning in pollution, Molina announced that she was considering an ordinance that would require all city departments to put their requests in simple language.

Ah, the irony. Such an ordinance, she was told, already existed, but was generally ignored because no one understood it in the first place.

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“It’s crazy,” she said to me the other day. “If I can’t understand departmental reports I’m supposed to vote on, how can I tell my constituents what they mean?”

I sympathize with Molina.

Bureaucrats complicate simple messages to justify their own existence and to confuse the meaning of the measures they propose, thereby making it easier to zing them past our bewildered legislators.

Molina makes the point that those who simplify best are journalists. That’s because, to begin with, we are simple people grasping to understand our world, and because we train to some degree to hone an ability to communicate.

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We are not expected to make poetry, but we are expected to be able to write “The man stole two hens” in terms that would make a copy editor feel good inside.

Molina believes that what the city needs is the governmental equivalent of a copy editor to ride herd on those who submit reports to the council. If the report isn’t clear, the copy editor, or monitor in this case, would kick it back for a rewrite.

Not a bad idea. To begin with, there are no intellectual requirements to becoming a member of a city council in America. A simple ability to read and write will do.

As a result, many are elected who can barely understand the fundamentals of a complete sentence, much less follow the convoluted syntax of an environmental engineering report.

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It’s like trying to explain the concept of infinity to a monkey.

Clarifying the language for our City Council might ultimately work to everyone’s benefit, although one barrier to civic improvement remains. Once they understand the issues they are about to vote on, will they really care enough to think about them?

Tom Jefferson did, and his concepts altered human history. No one expects our City Council to change much of anything, but I’d be happy if they knew the man stole two hens and wondered, however vaguely, what they ought to do about it.


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