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Blending Mayberry, modern realities



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August 07, 2012 | 05:03 PM
I went to a minor league baseball game the other night.

After I paid by credit card, I noticed the senior rate was $1 cheaper.

"Just take $1 from the register," someone told the ticket seller.

After making the last catch of the inning, a player threw the ball to a kid in the crowd.

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No one seemed to be worrying about how to record the $1 or who would pay for the ball.

That laid-back, trust -the-money changers attitude is all a part of what small town charm is all about.

That term or some variation of it has been bantered about a lot lately in Lake Geneva. That "Mayberry" idea of what a small town should be was used to defend the American Legion hot dog stand, the beach bookkeeping system and letting dogs swim in the lake.

In Mayberry, Sheriff Andy Taylor gave the town drunk the key to the jail so he could let himself in after a binge and let himself out when he'd slept it off. It was a community where everyone knew everyone and accepted them for who they were and where a lot of legal formalities went by the wayside. In Mayberry, the good ol' boys wore white hats and a handshake was a contract.

As we know, Mayberry is also fiction.

Mayberry sentiments inevitably clash with modern realities —-the need for tighter bookkeeping, the fear of malfeasance and lawsuits. In the modern Mayberry, people have to watch their p's and q's, dot their i's and cross their t's. Everything has to be by the book or the book will be thrown at them.

So where does Lake Geneva stand on this continuum between Andy Taylor's Mayberry and modern realities?

We're starting to find out.

Sarah Hill, a long-time city resident with a cute puppy, thinks it's silly that rules should be enforced that would stop her dog from cooling off at the lake near Library Park on a hot day.

"By insisting that the Lake Geneva Police Department spend precious resources enforcing a 'no swim' and 'leash law' ordinance, we are choosing to alienate a significant and important part of our population," she wrote in a recent letter to the editor. "I can't imagine anything more threatening to the quality of life in my hometown than being harassed for swimming my dog in a small area of the lake at the end of a park. To this I say - Give Me a Break!"

Another letter writer, Rick Steinberg, came to the defense of the American Legion hot dog stand which has been under attack for being run by Frank Marsala, a nonveteran, and under the auspices of what has been called an illegal lease arrangement with the city.

"I like Lake Geneva. I like small-old fashioned things," Steinberg wrote. "I like Frank who runs it with his small family. And he sells the best little hot dogs in Lake Geneva."

And then there's the controversy with how the cash is handled at the beach.

Right now, it's done by a colored and numbered bracelet system. At the end of the day, the number of bracelets is subtracted from the start number to give the total number of people who have visited the beach.

When beach manager Joe Clifford was asked at a meeting why he didn't provide a paper receipt, he said rather insistently: "The bracelet is the receipt!"

Three examples of small town living under attack.

The Mayberryians would want a laissez faire approach to swimming dogs, a hot dog stand to be run without hassle and the continuation of what they see as a common sense accounting system at the beach.

But there's another side to consider.

Between innings at that minor league baseball game, I started to read the paper I'd brought with me.

There was a story about the Dixon, Ill., comptroller who stole $53 million from a city with an annual budget $22 million. How did she get away with it? Well, she was also city treasurer and handled all the city's expenses. A trusted local.

On a much smaller scale, Lake Geneva had its own scandal a few years ago when a trusted library employee embezzled more than $100,000.

That's a flipside to the Mayberry approach. Trusting trusted people.

Often they're part of what people disparagingly call the good ol' boy system.

Marsala, who has been running the hot dog stand for years, certainly qualifies as one of the city's good ol' boys. He's been a city councilman and knows a lot of other good ol' boys. When a small clique has clout in the community it creates both jealously and the risk that nonelected citizens may have too much power.

But the good ol' boys are also the people who have historically gotten things done. They're the go-getters and part of the reason is that they have a network. They've usually been around for awhile and are often doing things as much for the community as anything else. They also tend to have difficulty dealing with change.

No one here is accusing anyone of malfeasance. In fact, the argument's been made in the beach and canteen issues that the city needs to do something to protect itself and its employees. But there is a fair amount of inference going around.

That's another layer to the hot dog stand issue. Good ol' boys make enemies and Marsala has a few. The resolution on that matter should be based on facts alone. We need to get past the city's well-earned reputation for personality-driven politics.

So who's right? The Mayberryians or the by-the-book folks?

My scorecard is split.

The beach issue seems the easiest. While the current bracelet accounting system seems right out of Mayberry, it doesn't seem any more prone to abuse than a receipt and cash register system. It's also likely that the receipts will just get wet and end up strewn across the sand as a reminder of bureaucratic purity.

But the city's auditor is looking at the situation. So the simple answer is that if he finds the system wanting, we need to change it. The city may have to buy a modern cash register or two and figure out a way to use them in an efficient manner.

When it comes to money, I tend to believe in Ronald Reagan's credo, "Trust but verify."

So the answer is simple — do whatever the auditor says.

The hot dog stand is a different matter. There are claims that the lease arrangement with the city is being abused. If it is, the city needs to step in and do something about it. Is it illegal? Frankly, I don't know.

We have decided it's not worth a Watergate-like investigation. I mean, it's a hot dog stand.

But when I asked the city attorney whether the lease arrangement was legal he said that he had rendered an opinion on the subject to the city council in 2008 but couldn't reveal it because of attorney-client privilege.

That's not necessarily damning but it is disquieting. The city needs to take a stand on it and either put it to rest or resolve it.

I do agree that it would be nice if veterans ran the American Legion stand, but tend to agree with the letter writer. If it's OK with the city and OK with the Legion, it ought to be OK — unless the lease arrangement is illegal in which case the city better take care of it pronto.

As for letting swimming dogs swim issue — police don't have the manpower to patrol the area. Put up a sign about the rules and if someone is really abusing them, call the police. As for enforcement, I vote for the Mayberry approach — judgment on the part of the authorities.

That doesn't mean that the big shots get off. Should Sarah Hill get off because she happens to be on the city council? Or Frank Marsala because he's a good ol' boy? Or John Halverson because he's editor of the paper?

Absolutely not.

Judgment should be based on circumstance not the people involved.

But there's a place in my Mayberry for a cop to walk up to someone point to a sign and say "move on please" without writing a ticket or making it a federal case.

So these are three examples of our old ways of doing things clashing with new realities.

What does a city do?

Let's find a mid-point by getting in line when the bean counters say something needs to be done, by allowing the good ol' boys to be do-gooders and cutting them off when they aren't, and by using some Andy Taylor discretion when it comes to enforcing the little laws.

Lake Geneva is in the midst of growing pains — let's make the right choices and try to make them publicly and without resorting to histrionics and finger pointing.

We ought to be able to tackle modern problems with a bit of Mayberry civility.

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