What happened between the time of my letter and Thanksgiving, including Nov. 9 meeting..



After sending my letter on Friday, November 3, I got a call from my council person (I have since learned that they are all at-large members, but since I addressed the letter to him, he responded) the following Monday morning right after 8:00, just to let me know he was going to look into it. Later in the day I got a call from the City Manager's office, actually the City's Public Relations Officer, a former student of mine at Simpson College where I am an adjunct faculty member (in real life I am the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm).

I explained to her what had dawned on me over the weekend -- that from a pure marketing standpoint, assuming that my overriding goal is to have as many people as possible see my display and that I didn't care whether they saw it live or video, they had just handed me the golden egg of marketing. Because there was no way I could risk running my display for the general public in view of this threat from the city. Just occasionally for the media, neighbors, family, and dignitaries. Essentially meaning that my display had just become, from a marketing standpoint, like one of those hot toys they have every year that everybody wants because they can't get it. I was now building "Tickle Me Elmo"-- the display so good you can't see it -- and everyone would seek it out online. Further, I could get national attention by sending out a press kit including the outrageous certified letter from the city, a broadcast quality video of the display, and a press release entitled "The City That Stole Christmas."

My hope in explaining this, of course, was that she would make a compelling argument for sanity on the part of the city. I don’t like fighting. But if pushed to it, I will win.


Two days later I met with her and Jim Spradling, the assistant city manager in charge of public safety. Deb Dyar, Public Relations Officer, was also in the meeting. Jim apologized for the certified letter, blaming an overzealous City Attorney, and promising that the policy had been changed by which such letters could be issued. Two things come to mind about that.

  1. To the degree the City Attorney “misunderstood” and thought I was somebody the city wanted to aggressively go after, what about the tone and language of the conversation with the police chief in which he told her to find a law they could go after me with led her to that “misunderstanding”? (Hint: there was no “misunderstanding.”)
  2. Nothing about the apology or assurances of fairness actually changed the legal standing of the certified letter nor the ordinance they had misapplied to make my lights illegal if they chose. But it made me feel better at the time.


We then had what I thought at the time was a reasonably cooperative meeting, resulting in the city putting up "Local Traffic Only" signs at the head of the cul de sac at the end of my street during the month of December (which I'm sure stopped some real problems). What we didn't do was deal with traffic flow or residents parking along the curb and forcing the line of visitors out into the middle of the street. But the promise from the City is represented by this quote in a follow-up e-mail from Jim Spradling on November 20, “We will monitor the other streets for congestion as time goes on and may take further traffic control steps if necessary.”

That promise, of course, is not how the City actually proceeded. Nor did they live up to the other promises made in that meeting to be fair and work cooperatively, other than putting up very helpful signage that kept visitors from continuing down the dead-ind cul se sac at the end of my street.

Because after the assistant city manager was assuring me they had no intention of shutting me down as a first resort, they gave Ankeny police officers this document on November 22 ordering them to shut me down as their ONLY response to ANY complaints. Not to resolve the problem. Not to use discretion. Not even to judge whether or not a complaint had merit. But simply to document that there were people there, then shut me down. How would you like to be a visitor that drove your kids 40-minutes to see my lights when that happened?


Speaking of visitors, because my display was basically a three-sequence, nine-minute "show" (see it at www.SandersonFamilyChristmas.com), visitors waited in line down the street, parked against the curb in both directions. In other words, as long as homeowners didn't block the parking and force the line into the middle of the street, two lanes of the street was clear in both directions at all times. Unlike the displays in other parts of town where the streets are blocked both ways with visitors looking at lights. ... While driving. ... With their lights off. So much for citing public safety as the reason to go after my lights.

Further, because I am on a side street rather than a main artery where the light-viewing traffic would interfere with normal traffic and create chaos, the location of my house provides a natural traffic flow to my display that eliminates problems. The number of visitors waiting to see my display is self-regulating, going back only so far as people are willing to wait in line. The only problem occurs when local cars park along the curb forcing the line of visitors into the middle of the street. Or worse, yet, when traffic backs up to Grant Street with no plan on how to deal with it so we don't have cars parked along the curb on both sides of the road, forcing both north and southbound traffic through one remaining lane in the center of the street. The very problem I went to them months in advance to solve in the first place. Even now the city could easily eliminate that problem by restricting parking between the hours of 5:00 and 10:00 p.m. during December, which I have asked them to do and they have refused.