After doing static Christmas light displays for a number of years, I decided early in 2006 to add computer control to my display. (Visit to see the display.) The plan was to sync the lights to music that would be broadcast via a low-power FM transmitter using lights I already had, plus a few more of a second color. There would be no speakers outside (I have the best neighbors ever, but nobody would like that, including me). Meaning that the only way to hear anything would be for visitors to tune in on their car radios. Similar computerized displays have been done bigger and better by hundreds before me, in places far more populated and with far more traffic. Let's face it, Iowa isn't the most densely populated place on earth.

Nonetheless, in trying to be a good neighbor and good citizen, I made what you would never guess was a mistake -- I went to our Ankeny policelate late summer to see if they had any thoughts on the best way to deal with traffic. Can we limit parking, for example? Which made it all the more shocking that the police chief was very hostile, admitting that I wasn't breaking any laws but outlining unlikely scenario after scenario in which he would shut me down. I finally called him on it, "I didn't come here looking to be combative. I'm clearly on your side, but it looks to me that you guys are going to be looking for the first opportunity you can to shut me down."

After which the chief admitted that he didn't want me synchronizing my display (it "sounds like more work").That notwithstanding, he added, "But I can assure you, Mr. Sanderson, that we don't intend to shut you down at the first call we receive. For example, if someone calls and complains that a car is blocking a drive, we won't come to you about that. That's not your fault. We'll go tell the driver to move their car." Makes perfect sense. But remember that example.

I thought the meeting went better - friendlier - after that. But it turns out I was mistaken.

Let me ask you this: If you're a city administrator and you have a citizen that is so cooperative that he comes to you in late August/early September about the Christmas display because he wants to work with you to make sure things go as smoothly as they can for his neighbors and the city, what would you do next? Well, if you're an administrator with the City of Ankeny, Iowa, the answer is clear -- you sic the lawyers on him. So on October 31 -- completely out of the blue after thinking my meeting with the police had ended well and hearing nothing to the contrary -- my wife and I received a CERTIFIED letter from the law firm representing the City of Ankeny announcing that they had tortured an Ankeny public nuisance ordinance into applying to my display (which hadn't even been built yet), and were threatening legal action under that ordinance. Welcome to your tax dollars at work.

I responded with a righteously indignant letter to the Ankeny mayor and city council members, objecting to the outrageous actions of the police chief on behalf of the city and hinting that I would go to the press to protect my rights, if necessary. I then met with the assistant city manager in charge of public safety where I was assured I should not have received the certified letter, and he promised that the City would work with me and be fair. They added temporary "Local Traffic Only" signage at the head of the cul de sac at the end of my street as a result of that meeting.

But what I didn't know was that, at the same time and behind the scenes, the City was actually taking an even more hostile stance than even the certified letter suggested. The police administration was instructing their officers to document that people were looking at my lights and then shut me down at the first opportunity. Here is that actual document. And that is exactly what they did.

In fact, once the season started and the lights came on, the Ankeny police received a total of exactly one complaint call related to my display during the entire Christmas season -- an anonymous call from a woman complaining that a visitor waiting in line for their turn to see my display was parked in front of her driveway (Sound familiar?). So did the police go tell the driver to move as the chief promised in September? Not a chance. They followed the standing orders that applied only to my lights -- they documented that there were visitors, then came directly to my house and shut me down.

Did I say that they only received one complaint call during the season? Actually they received three -- the original call that somebody was blocking a drive, plus two angry complaints from visitors waiting in line with their families who were outraged by Ankeny's heavy-handed mishandling of the situation. By way of perspective, an article in the Des Moines Register noted that the police in West Des Moines received ten complaints in all of 2006. The Ankeny police //received two in one night. Not even counting the remaining visitors booing the officer when he left my house as a fairly strong indicator of public dissatisfaction as well.

The problem I face now, in view of the City's ongoing hostility, is that everybody who came to enjoy the lights in 2006 will be back in 2007. As well as their friends. And a whole lot more people because of this controversy. The problem could be fairly easily solved. But the City has refused. Instead they insist on continuing to illegally apply the nuisance ordinance to my display, refuses to participate in developing a workable plan to deal with the increased 2007 traffic, and has even upped the ante by now holding that the nuisance code includes some apparently invisible language that lets them use it to shut me down, not just for real traffic congestion, but for ANY neighbor complaints at all. (see that here)

I realize this story sounds unbelievable, and if you told it to me I will admit that I would be quite skeptical. Which is why I have documented the story in the timeline below. Please take the time to follow the links. And check back regularly to see what's happening now.