“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Those 45 words are very important to all of us because they are the first additional words attached to the Constitution of this great country. The founding fathers having completed the writing of that sacred document saw a need to specifically outline restrictions on the power of the government which guaranteed that the people would retain the freedom for which our first Veterans had fought against the British Crown to secure.
I would like to focus on the last ten words of the First Amendment; “...and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” We normally think of signing a petition about an issue when we hear the word petition but the signing of such a document is really just one way to ask the government to do something. Sometimes the government might be asked to build a school or park or increase a budget item for one reason or another. Other times a petition to a governmental agency can be a request to have the government stop doing a certain action.
Martin Luther King, Jr. asked the government to stop treating minorities as second-class citizens. His one strong voice made a change in America. Ralph Nader asked that the government start requiring cars to be safer to cut down the carnage on America’s highways. The Abolitionists petitioned the Congress to outlaw slavery. Many other examples have occurred in our nation, state, and county. Most of those who petition the government draw little notice but they still must be strong in their beliefs to take the time, experience the frustration of fighting city hall, and be willing to assume the expense of the battle if it must be fought in the courts.
A few weeks ago I was talking with my history classes at Mariposa High School about the concept of the individual citizen having the right to petition the government here in America as I was comparing our government with those of dictators and even monarchies. I used an example of Mark Sobel who is currently waging a little battle with our local county Board of Supervisors over an issue that seems unimportant to many but has an effect upon so many—trash collection.
I find myself in an odd position because I know the folks on both sides of the issue and can understand some of each side’s arguments. A short time back the County of Madera accepted bids for the collection of trash in the Bass Lake area. EMADCO won the bid and they are continuing to provide great service to the residents of Bass Lake as they have for many years. Mr. Sobel has a couple of complaints with the county over the issuance of the contract to EMADCO. He has no complaint with EMADCO’s service just the actions of our county.
Sobel objects to the county requirement that all residents of the Bass Lake area be required to pay for the trash service as a few of the homeowners rarely use their cabins during the year and simply want to haul their trash home when they leave. The county wants to be able to enforce everyone paying for service in our rural area as people in the urban sections of the county must do.
Mark Sobel also questions the existence of an 8% fee on top of the charge by EMADCO that would go directly, according to Sobel, into the County General Fund which Sobel identifies as a tax upon citizens of Madera County which is not allowed under Proposition 13. Sobel states that the county calls this 8% an administrative fee but he asks what they are administering and further argues that current laws prohibit counties from profiting from trash collection. There is also a provision of a potential 15% discount to Bass Lake residents from EMADCO which would offset the 8% fee and that could be lost in this discussion. Nothing seems to be easy.
Mr. Sobel has felt ignored by the Board of Supervisors who opted for the fees and the contract so he is considering the filing of a lawsuit to argue his point in front of a judge. This is an example of the David and Goliath story and my students were intrigued that one citizen can do such a thing without the government punishing that citizen. Frankly, I don’t think this issue will ever be adjudicated in the courts. In fact, I trust that the fair-minded members of our Board of Supervisors and Mr. Sobel will be able to sit down over a cup of coffee, or a glass of a great local wine and hammer out an understanding.
Petitioning a governmental entity over trash might seem silly to many but they say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That we have those 10 words in the First Amendment isn’t trash - it’s gold.