Friday, May 8, 2009

The Penalty Industry

Did you hear the one about the guy who got barred from Carnegie Centre for telling jokes?

It's no laughing matter. 

Some people are still annoyed about it.  Last year, Leonard, a pensioner in his early seventies, got permission from Diane, the Co-ordinator of Carnegie Poetry night, to perform as a comedian. Poetry night is popular; a good crowd shows up.

"I practiced for a week," Leonard said earnestly.  

But a security guard -- some witnesses couldn't remember his name; one called him "the grey haired guy"; one called him "the limey"; another said his name was John -- was in the audience and called out to Leonard, "You're jokes are too dirty.   You have to go!"  Many in the crowd wanted Leonard to stay and finish but the guard took him off the stage, barking, "That's enough|!"  

"Oh he was funny!  He was hilarious!", one audience member said of Leonard, throwing his head back, laughing.  "One lady there was laughing her guts out".  When the security guard kicked Leonard out, "She got mad".  He said her anger had the same intensity as her laughter.  Security kicked her out too.

"My jokes were no worse than what you hear on tv", Leonard said.  "Leno and Letterman sometimes tell jokes that are a little dirty; mine were no worse than that", he insisted.

One audience member said that Leonard had told a joke about the bible in which he talked of "foreskins" and that's what set the security guard off.   

This part is not funny at all:  Leonard was barred from the entire Carnegie building for three days.

Leonard has been around for years and is never violent or aggressive.  He's well liked.  To restore his right to come back into the Carnegie building after he had served his sentence, Leonard had to attend a meeting with Security boss, Skip Everall.  (You have to serve the sentence imposed by City of Vancouver security before you can have a meeting to appeal the barring.  Go figure.)  Everall asked him, "What did you say?" Leonard repeated a couple of the jokes and Skip "smiled" and told him he was re-instated.

As is policy, there was a handwritten security report produced on Leonard by the security guard who barred him, and then the handwritten security report was typed into the City of Vancouver Security database by one of Carnegie's twenty-something-an-hour front desk receptionists. Then, of course, there was the time spent having a meeting with the Security boss to get re-instated, after the Security boss was briefed by the barring security guard.  This barring and security report-writing occurs multiple times every day at Carnegie, usually targeting non-violent people.  Some non-violent people have multiple barrings on their security records.   

When a barring is contested, the original penalty can be compounded with another penalty, if the barred individual does not grovel during their meeting with the Security boss.    

When a barring is contested even verbally, more meetings are required, often with more highly paid staff.  It is not uncommon for a barred person to say they had to "meet with Dan", the Assistant Director Dan Tetrault who makes close to $100,000.  Or they may have to meet with Carnegie Director Ethel Whitty who has long surpassed the $100,000 mark.  And it is not uncommon for Everall to meet with both these highly paid individuals about a barring before he meets with the  barred individual, and again after he meets with the barred individual. And then Tetrault and Whitty have to, of course, meet with one another.  Sometimes City Hall's Community Service manager making in the $200,000 range annually, or even the City Manager herself making over a quarter of a million annually, are drawn into the game of a contested penalty and the whole thing has to be run by an in-house lawyer at City Hall.  These costly interactions and meetings are never fruitful; the results are predictable: Carnegie asses are covered every time and the low income Carnegie member learns every time that 'You can't fight City Hall.'  

And if the case of the barred individual turns up on a blog, as is occurring with increasing regularity, more meetings have to be held to talk about who is blogging and legal advice has to be sought from the City.  One woman who was barred for talking back to a male coffee seller at Carnegie, estimates that before her case is finished it will have cost the City $50,000 in labour time.

And as the costs of the penalty industry spiral out of control, so do residential taxes.  Last I heard, they were going up 11%.  And City manager Penny Bellum has not even looked at the cost of the burgeoning penalty industry.  

With one memo, Ballem could drastically cut costs associated with the penalty industry.  She could instruct City staff not to bar anyone from Carnegie facilities who is neither violent or threatening violence.  That would eliminate the majority of barrings.  Many of the barrings continuing to be inflicted on the poor would be grey area cases: a common scenario is a staff person wants to get rid of a low income person who is challenging them, so they call security and portray persistence in a poor person as threatening.     

Virtually everyone on the Downtown Eastside who has used Carnegie Center has a barring story. In the past taxpayers didn't give a shit that the rights of the poor were being trimmed to almost nothing.  But now that taxpayers are being squeezed, they may finally do the poor a favour and insist that this make-work paper work be stopped so that they can save money.  They would be, as Suzanne Somers likes to say, "Doing well by doing good."