The Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens's
A Christmas Carol was a wealthy, mean-spirited man who lacked
Christmas cheer. He was so consumed with his business that he
failed to understand the importance of spreading good cheer and
As every schoolchild should know, after
visits from the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future,
Scrooge had a change of heart. He embraced the spirit of the Christmas
season and treated others with kindness and generosity.
Kay Leibrand of Palo Alto, California,
a 61-year-old breast cancer sufferer, is not a Dickens character,
but right now is hoping that the Scrooge in her life - local government
officials - will change their hearts as well.
Leibrand is being threatened with up to
six months in jail and a fine of $1,000 for violating the city's
"visibility project," which is intended to increase
the visibility of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists in this
San Francisco suburb. Leibrand is being charged with violating
a regulation stating that bushes in strips of grass between the
street and the sidewalk of a property must be shorter than two
feet. Anything taller is considered a public nuisance.
Leibrand's 30-year-old bushes already
are pruned substantially for safety reasons. No injuries or accidents
have ever been caused by her shrubs. The stop sign at the corner
near her house has never been obstructed. Motorists at the corner
can see approaching traffic for at least a block in each direction.
Significantly, under the law, if the city
is displeased with the height of property owners' shrubbery, it
has the right to cut the bushes to the required levels and bill
the owner for the work. In Leibrand's case, however - and only
in her case - the city instead filed a criminal complaint. Thus,
Leibrand may go to jail.
Leibrand wonders why she has been the
only person criminally charged under this ordinance, noting that
others in the city, including city council members, also have
bushes over two feet high. None are being threatened with a jail
Leibrand is spending this holiday season
fretting over her upcoming February trial. Just as Christmas Carol
readers worried if Tiny Tim would have food on his plate, Leibrand
worries that she may be incarcerated. The Palo Alto government
has played the role of Scrooge nearly perfectly.
Although it's unlikely any ghosts will
visit Palo Alto government officials this holiday season, Leibrand
is still is hoping they will have a Scrooge-like change of heart.
Dickens's miser was rightly viewed with contempt. So too, should
government officials who consider jailing a breast cancer sufferer
over the inconsequential height of a bush. The Christmas season
is no time for a "Bah! Humbug!" attitude. Kay Leibrand
should not have to endure the holidays with fear.
Christopher Burger is a program
director for The National Center for Public Policy Research, a
Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to CBurger@nationalcenter.org.