When a group led by Oxnard churchgoers recently took issue with the location of an adult business, they sought relief in the book that offered the most durable satisfaction available--the Municipal Code.
The concerned citizens formed a committee and submitted new guidelines that lawmakers are expected to adopt in some form later this year.
The impulse to regulate is not new. Local interest groups and lawmakers have been writing laws as long as Ventura County has had cities.
Some offered forward-looking solutions to longstanding problems, others were shortsighted reactions to temporary nuisances, but all of them remain laws until someone takes them off the books.
Last month the city of Ventura repealed a law barring animal-drawn vehicles from downtown during evening rush hour. Still on the books are laws against riding horses on the sidewalk and spitting on public streets.
Ojai outlaws carrying a concealed slingshot and Oxnard has a ban on male poultry. Like ancient guacamole turning brown and toxic in the back of the refrigerator, these legal leftovers linger in the codified ordinances of the county's older cities. (The east county's codes may have to wait a quarter of a century to appear fusty and stale.)
"We know these laws are on the books," said Michael Dougherty, chief assistant attorney for Ventura. "The reason they are still there is nobody has enough time to take them all off."
Given a broader context, cities in Ventura County look like hotbeds of legal modernity. In her book, "You Can't Eat Peanuts in Church and Other Little Known Laws," Barbara Seuling recounts some statutes and ordinances that, though hard to believe, were once the law.
A Kentucky statute read that no female shall appear in a bathing suit on any state highway unless she is escorted by at least two officers or unless she is armed with a club.
The statute goes on to say that females under 90 pounds or over 200 pounds are exempted. It concludes: "The provisions of this statute shall not apply to female horses."
Nevada prohibited driving camels along its main highways.
Setting fire to a mule was expressly outlawed in Maine.
One town in Kansas, perhaps in response to an earlier spate of lawyer bashing, forbade the practice of throwing knives at anyone wearing a striped suit.
A genuine lawyer, this one Ventura County Counsel James McBride, explained the care and maintenance of local lawbooks. He said that the departments responsible for enforcing a particular code section are generally responsible for keeping it current.
"As situations change, they usually submit the laws to the board for amendment," McBride explained. "However, there are laws that no departments regularly deal with, so nothing much happens to them."
The portion of code books regulating public morals is a good example of a category that gets little exercise. Nearly every code book has a morals section that, in these more liberal times, amounts to a repository of quaint social customs.
Section 6132 of the Ventura City Code prohibits the use of vulgar language within hearing of women and children.
Unfortunately, police don't keep an index of infractions by type, so there is no practical way to determine if anyone has been cited since the law was adopted in 1912.
Records at the city clerk's office show that the indecent-language law was part of an early legislative package. Also included in the 1912 morals agenda was a law that made it illegal to race horses on public streets.
Santa Paula has a similar obscene-language law whose origin is a puzzle.
Section 8.16.10 of the Santa Paula Municipal Code says, "No person while on the premises of any drive-in restaurant shall use loud or vociferous language or obscene, vulgar or indecent language or swear, or curse or yell or shriek in a manner calculated to disturb any person or persons present at such place."
City administrators can't determine when the law was written. Historians can't guess what spawned the regulation. A lawyer with 30 years of practice in Santa Paula can recall no application of the indecent-language law and admits that he has never heard of it.
Nevertheless, the next time you're fumbling for change at the drive-up window and the idiot behind you honks, keep your comments polite.
It's still the law.
Bingo is regulated under the morals chapter of most municipal code books, which puts churches and charitable organizations in the same regulatory neighborhood as disorderly conduct and dance halls.
It's not so much that bingo is in a tough neighborhood, it's in a rich neighborhood. Based on projections of gross receipts in Oxnard, which requires monthly reports, bingo does well over $10 million countywide.
"Bingo is competitive," said Laurie Kelley, a clerk in the Ventura business license office. "The different clubs watch each other closely."
Far from being tired and neglected, the bingo codes get a lot of attention, according to Kelley. But they may seem anachronistic, at least to the bingo non-cognoscenti.
So, what's the modern menace to playing bingo in Oxnard and Ventura while intoxicated?
"A loud, obnoxious drunk can cause more trouble," said Chuck Ivie, manager of the Ventura Elks' Friday-night bingo game. "They're distracting, and some of our players need to concentrate because they're playing a lot of sheets."
So what is the legal standard?
"Absorption rates are different," said Ed Macias, supervisor at the alcohol and beverage control office in Santa Barbara. "One person sniffs the cork and he is blotto. Another can drink the whole winery and still do handstands, so I can't say it is safe to play bingo with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08%."
Ivie is not so circumspect when it comes to booze and bingo.
"I throw 'em out," he said.
Six scandalous weeks in 1928 caused the Ventura City Council to put a fine point in its gaming laws.
The city made it "unlawful for any person to solicit, entice or induce . . . any person to visit a gambling ship, whether such ship be within or without the jurisdiction of the State of California."
Richard Senate of Ventura traces the law to operators from Long Beach who anchored a floating casino five miles off the coast. Senate published a newspaper article several years ago on the floating casino named the Johanna Smith.
He said people eager for entertainment during the dull years of Prohibition were happy to pay 25 cents for a speedboat ride beyond the territorial limits. They would pull up to the Johanna Smith, where the crew greeted them in Hawaiian costumes while playing ukuleles.
"People from L. A. were double-parked all over Pierpont. They were coming back drunk or broke or both," Senate said. "It caused a real furor. One commentator called it a nest of vipers."
Senate said the entertainment was tame by today's standards. Patrons even had to bring their own liquor. Nevertheless, the legislative response was quick and effective: The Johanna Smith was towed back to Long Beach after six weeks.
Sixty-five years later, the law is still lurking below the surface.
Maggie Bird, president of Cruise Mart, a Ventura travel agency that regularly "solicits and transports" hundreds of clients to gambling boats throughout the United States, has never heard of the law.
"All the cruise ships I am familiar with offer gambling once they reach the territorial limits," she said. "Plus a number of states are allowing riverboat gambling."
A quick check with the Ventura police showed that Cruise Mart and other travel agencies are safe from prosecution. When informed of the apparent violation, a department spokesmen laughed.
Ventura's hysterical reaction to gambling ships caused later local historians to compare the events of 1928 to "The Music Man."
A more apt comparison was evident 21 years earlier in Santa Paula. There--50 years before the Broadway musical and its hit song, "Trouble," popularized the notion that pool-playing corrupted youth--the citizenry found a link between the eight ball and moral decay.
In 1907, Santa Paula banned unaccompanied youth under the age of 17 from visiting pool halls. Eighty-six years later, the proscription is still there.
Minors can enter a pool hall if they provide the chief of police with their name, address and birth date, the name and address of the billiard room and the name and address of the poolroom's owner.
The police can refuse if the applicant, owner or manager of the poolroom is not of good moral character, if liquor is served within 50 feet of the pool hall, or if there has been a disturbance at that address within six months before the application.
An applicant denied the permit can petition the City Council for special dispensation to practice his combinations and bank shots.
As obtuse as some old laws appear, their inspiration was sound. Consider one of the older laws in the county, an 1897 Ventura ordinance titled Cleanliness of Public Places.
"It shall be unlawful for any person to throw or otherwise place any orange, banana or other fruit peel, or to spit or expectorate, upon the floor of any street railway car or other public conveyance, or public hall, or public building, or on any sidewalk or upon the front of any public building in the City."
Keith Carter, a longtime Ventura County attorney, speculated that the spitting prohibition was aimed at inconsiderate tobacco chewers. However, a book detailing public health at the turn of the century suggests a different origin.
"Health Seekers," by John E. Bauer, describes the influx of tuberculosis sufferers looking for relief in the Southern California climate.
In the 1890s, one death in six was caused by tuberculosis. And public alarm was growing at about the same time medical science concluded that the disease could be spread by sputum.
In the interests of public health, the Journal of the American Medical Assn. advised municipalities to "prevent promiscuous spitting."
Presumably, the slapstick comedy of the vaudeville stage had already demonstrated the hazards of discarded banana peels.
Municipal codes often regulate animals in the public health section. Oxnard City Clerk Daniel Martinez said a recent inquiry from a resident in the Lemonwood neighborhood brought him up to speed on poultry regulations in his city. The resident owned a cat that was visiting a neighbor's chickens too frequently.
"The cat would go over the fence, grab a chicken and bring it back to his house to play with," Martinez said. "The cat's owner would then have to return the (still alive) chickens to the neighbor."
This went on for some time until the cat owner, displeased with having to handle dazed chickens bathed in feline spit, asked Martinez for the regulations on keeping fowl.
Martinez told the cat owner that his neighbor could have as many as 25 rabbits or chickens. Homing pigeons are exempt. Roosters are not.
The city of Oxnard, in a sweeping nuisance law targeted at roosters, bans male poultry beyond the age of 4 months.
"We don't have a rooster-abatement program. No inspector driving around early in the morning listening for them," said Richard McIntosh, Oxnard code enforcement official. "But we are getting more and more complaints all the time."
Animal Control's Joe Soto said violators have 72 hours to get rid of the rooster or the bird will be impounded. Soto wouldn't speculate about whether the stewpot is the preferred method of compliance.
"The way they get rid of the bird is up to them," he said.
The first thing any law must do is define what it seeks to regulate, but in the specificity of the language the definitions can get quite puzzling.
The business chapter of most municipal codes distinguishes between garbage , rubbish and junk . The city of Ventura's definition of rubbish reads like an environmental indictment of man's impact on the planet.
Rubbish is "wastepaper, fiber, rags, leavings, ashes, lawn trimmings . . . debris and all worthless, useless, unused, rejected and cast-off matter produced by human habitation except dead animals and garbage."
Garbage is generally defined as table scraps or the waste produced from food preparation.
The definition of junk varies somewhat. In one county ordinance junk is defined as old rags, cans, bottles, used paper, scrap and machinery whether repairable or not.
This stuff hardly warrants the attention of public officials, yet the county requires junk collectors to file daily reports with the sheriff on what they have collected.
Even if a junk collector wished to comply, nobody contacted at the Sheriff's Department could recall seeing the required form. They were at a loss to explain why aluminum cans, returnable bottles and discarded machinery merit the attention of law enforcement.
Ventura attorney Keith Carter finds a clue to the law's intent in the reference to discarded machinery.
"I'll bet that was aimed at preventing midnight auto-supply business," he said.
Fillmore has a raft of antiquated laws in the business-license section. The fee for a public bathtub is $4. A dog and pony license costs $10. A circus menagerie or street carnival, with reserved seats that cost 25 cents or less, is $60 per day. Merry-go-round licenses cost $16 for the first day, $8 for each succeeding.
Perhaps the oddest license of all is the one that allows the chief of police to issue a concealed-weapons permit for the bargain price of $4. No further restrictions are mentioned.
Lt. Richard Purnell is the sheriff's deputy who manages the station in Fillmore. He is the closest thing Fillmore has had to a police chief since 1987, when the sheriff took over law-enforcement duties there.
"Carrying a concealed weapon is the sort of thing we try to discourage nowadays," Purnell said. The Sheriff's Department's guidelines on concealed weapons are considerably tighter than Fillmore's, and each permit must be renewed annually.
If the level of regulation is any indication, Fillmore considered handguns less of a threat than female bartenders.
A 1960 law says that every "bar maid" in Fillmore must supply the chief of police with fingerprints and photographs so that he can run an FBI check to determine if the person is an immoral, dishonest or disorderly person.
Fillmore City Atty. Roger Meyers lets out a low moan when the "bar maid" law is mentioned. "I've only been attorney for a few months," he said. "We're in the process of removing some of these from the code and that's one that caught my eye."
Rose Rios, a bartender at Hub's, is the grande dame of Fillmore barkeeps. She calls the statute the silliest thing she ever heard.
"I've worked here since 1974 and everybody in town is my friend," Rios said.
None of the original lawmakers was available to explain the controversial ordinance. However, council minutes from 1960 indicate passage of a companion law prohibiting prostitution.
At that session, 20 Girl Scouts were on hand to witness the decision.
By The Numbers
Number of laws regulating transit bench advertisements in Ventura: 28
Number of bench ads: 0
The number of laws regulating pool halls in Santa Paula: 14
The number of pool halls:1
Number of bicycle laws in Oxnard: 72
Average number bicycles licensed monthly: 10
Number of words in the sentence defining misrepresentation in the Ventura Municipal Code: 198
Number of words in the sentence defining gambling in the Ventura Municipal Code: 487