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.
TO PROTECT AND TO SERVE? (NOT IN ANKENY)
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.
HE'S ON OUR SIDE? THEN BRING ON THE LAWYERS.
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
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.
ONE COMPLAINT? THEN SHUT HIM DOWN!
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
that applied only to my lights -- they documented that there
were visitors, then came directly to my house and shut
ANKENY, THE CITY PEOPLE COMPLAIN ABOUT
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.
PLAYING NICE WITH BULLIES - SOUNDS GOOD;
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
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.