A few days ago, I noticed a Tweet indicating someone was extremely angry about a video on YouTube. Normally I would not click on something like this, but for some reason I followed the link and found myself watching a man who was very upset that the “government” was pulling out a basketball pole in the street on which he lived. What was even more interesting were the comments that followed. They along with the video serve as a perfect example of what happens when we fail to teach information about local government in high school. If more people understood government and their own responsibilities the response to this would have been very much different. We would not have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by journalists angling for a story for more readers.
Let’s get into the analysis of just what is going on here:
First the video, which is 4:05 minutes in length, seems to have been posted by what appears to be a professional news agency, http://www.delawareonline.tv/. The editor and camera person is Daniel Sato. The company’s website identifies DelawareOnline as “Part of The News Journal Media Group.” Looking further into this, the News Journal online paper identifies itself as owned by Gannett. Based on all that, you would think professional journalists would have definitely researched a story like this to make sure they accurately conveyed the news. And even Gannett’s website claims “everything from our trusted brands. . .” Unfortunately, after looking into the whole situation more deeply, it appears to just be another example of journalists becoming sensationalists – doing whatever it takes to get readers instead of seriously reporting news. And focusing on their favorite target – the government.
The Opening Act
So onto the video: it begins with John McCafferty explaining how DelDOT was removing basketball poles from his neighborhood. He claims the pole near his home was there for 60 years. The video also shows his wife perched on top of the basketball pole – he claims she climbed up there because the trucks had come to take the pole. While he is explaining, the trucks return. This is the first apparent break in the video, and it occurs at about 1:23 minutes in.
A representative from a government agency arrives. She explains how they had notified him by certified letter that he needed to remove the pole. His answer was that he had responded to the letter, as did his state representative – however, based on the pole still located along the road, it’s obvious he did not comply with the terms of the letter. There is another break about 1:51 minutes in. The woman asks him to move the car he has parked in front of the pole. He does not immediately comply and indicates his wife will go back up the pole. The woman makes it clear Mr. McCafferty and his wife could be arrested if they exhibit disorderly behavior. There is another break in the video at about 2:13. They then have a discussion about allowing him to keep the pole. However there is another break in the video at 2:33.
The Crew Moves In
At this point the DelDOT crew moves in to remove the pole which is located about one foot behind the back of the curb. Meanwhile Mr. McCafferty yells to the crew throughout the process. It’s difficult to determine if there are breaks in the video during this operation. It becomes apparent that the crew is taking the pole and not leaving it with Mr. McCafferty. He becomes very agitated at this point because he indicates he has been lied to and told he can keep it. Now they are telling him he has to come to their place to pick it up. He is told to go into his home at that point. There could be another break around 3:14 when the camera shows his wife come out of their home. Mr. and Mrs. McCafferty yell at the crew from the front of their home. Mr. McCafferty indicates the first amendment gives him the right to say what he wants. There could be more breaks as the camera follows the crew’s trucks as they leave the area.
Violence and Misunderstanding
The response in comments and on the web are amazing. The majority believe the state has broken the law, taken something that was legally McCafferty’s and located on his private property. They feel he had rights to have the pole there. Some indicate he should sue the state and has every right to do so. Of course there is the typical blaming of liberals and conservatives for it all. What is worse are the numerous statements trashing the state representatives and many advise violence be taken as a solution against the government and their representatives.
Some Background Facts
Because I work in government and have had to deal with things like this, I realize no one really knows exactly what is going on unless they actual research all factors in this situation. And because the camera person edited what he wanted us to see, I cannot know what happened that he did not share with us. Anyway, while I cannot know every detail, I did some research – obviously more than the many people who are emotionally reacting to this and found out some information. Information the “professional journalists” failed to either find or share:
The Pole is Not on His Property
I did a search for John McCafferty and found only one living in that community on a cul-de-sac. Here is a screenshot of the property highlighted in red. If this is the correct property, it appears the basketball pole, which was installed one foot off public dedicated right of way, is not on his property. It almost looks like it is in front of his neighbor’s property, but this is difficult to tell for sure. So here is the first misconception most people don’t understand – you do not usually own the sidewalk or the land between the sidewalk and the road. And it appears in this case, if this is in fact the correct location, Mr. McCafferty does not. Based on the comments on YouTube, most others didn’t realize this could be a possibility.
We are Not Allowed to Place Permanent Objects in the Right of Way
Normally we have no rights to place permanent objects in the public right of way unless allowed to do so by the laws of our communities. In this particular case, DelDOT appears to have jurisdiction and ownership of the area in which the pole was located. And they recently passed a law regulating what can be placed in this area, normally called the clear zone. They even had brochures and other public relations material printed up to let people know about this law.
Safety is a Factor
The clear zone is important in road design to ensure safety. Should an accident occur, negligence on the state’s part to regulate their laws over this area could result in the state becoming liable. Some commenting tried to bring up the safety element, but most laughed it off. It makes me think of the old saying, “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” Most people focused on only someone getting hurt playing basketball, but I’ve seen instances where people lose control of cars on quiet back roads like this, go off the road, hit some object like this, and are killed. Local government is sued on a regular basis due to people who experience accidents – even if caused by no fault of the government. So people who work for government have an obligation to protect the public interest by following the law and not being negligent. And a child could be hit here – do we really as a community want to encourage our children to play in the street? The video even shows that the family is also comfortable with climbing up on the pole – definitely not a safe action or good behavior for children to witness.
The other part of this that a lot of people don’t realize is that the right of way is often where utilities are placed. I can’t say in this case there is phone, cable, gas, or sewer under the grass in that area, but there’s a good chance there could be. And in places other than this particular one, there could also be water mains. This is another reason the public right of way is usually kept clear of permanent objects. Not only can they be damaged by installation of poles, but it becomes a hazard if crews need to move in to repair damaged utilities.
John’s Lived There for Five Years
The other item of note about John’s property, if this is the correct location, is that the home in which he lives was built in 1959. Perhaps the hoop was put up before homes were built there, but it isn’t quite the 60 years he threw out there. I’ve had some responsibility for metal poles over the years in our parks and can say that pole is in great shape for a 60 year old pole. Anyway, John bought the home on 9/30/2005 so has only lived there a little over five years. But perhaps he grew up in that area and therefore knows the history of the pole.
We Can’t Do Whatever We Want
Another facet of all this is the perception that because we live in the “United States of America” we can do whatever we want. The truth is while we have some rights, we give up those rights when we don’t abide by the laws set by our elected officials. When we move into a community we must follow the rules of that community. We don’t get a choice of what laws to follow, and we cannot interpret those laws to suit our own purpose. However, if we don’t like it, we are free to move along and look for another community that might have laws we like better.
Although there’s probably a lot more to dig into here, I am finishing up by first addressing the attitude expressed by many in the comments that the answer to this is to rape, maim, or kill government personnel. That somehow the crew that showed up was personally responsible for making that law. But instead laws are approved by our elected officials who introduce and vote on them at the request of us! So someone asked for the law that says they cannot have basketball poles in the public right of way. If for some reason the majority of the public now decides they are perfectly happy having these poles in the right of way, encouraging their children to play in the road, and paying any and all legal fees for any subsequent lawsuits brought about due to their placement in this area, well then all they need to do is petition their elected officials to change the law. And some who commented did suggest contacting elected officials.
The other solution which seems so very much easier to me and doesn’t involve the entire state working themselves into a frenzy, taking up legislators’ time over basketball hoops, and removes any and all liability from taxpayers is to just have John and his wife install a basketball hoop on their own property. What is so amazing to me is that this very obvious, simple, and practical solution is not even thought of by the majority of people. Is it right that our first reaction as a country is to spend all this time and energy getting upset, contacting legislators, writing papers, threatening government workers, pounding chests about perceived rights, etc instead of just saying “Hey, John, maybe you can just put it on your own property?” And if that many people feel that strongly about it, maybe they can send him a donation so he can buy a new one and hire someone to install it on his own property.