Friday, October 09, 2009

Small Town, Big Government

by Bob Gough


[ED: Big Government isn't just in Washington, DC. In this story, local Republicans and Democrats tag-team to put out of business a local charity providing safe rides home from local bars. Often, the fight against Big Government begins at home. This installment comes from the editor of the great local news site, Quincy News.Org]

Jonathon Schonekase can’t seem to escape his past.

He changed his name hoping people would forget about his setting fire to an abandoned school when he was a juvenile. He then went to prison as an adult, where he lost his eye in a fight.

courtesy rides

Jonathon said the loss of a friend in a drunk driving accident gave him the idea to start a service where, maybe, he could give people an option to avoid drinking and driving.

Jonathon started “Courtesy Rides” on New Year’s 2008. He posted his number in bars, people called him and he picked them up. Didn’t cost them a thing. If they wanted to leave a tip, so be it.

Now more than a year and a half after starting the service, the town where he started it has decided Jonathon needs to be regulated.

The City Council of Quincy, Illinois (pop. 40,000 and change) passed an ordinance by an 8-5 vote to tweak the taxicab ordinance in the city code to classify his volunteer service as a “for hire” business if he accepts donations.

Jonathon became a victim of his own success. He did stray from the original mission of picking up people from bars when he gave rides to other places, including the Quincy Airport and when he added more vehicles and volunteer drivers. This drew the attention of the local cab company and shuttle services.

All of the charity he provided is now government regulated.

The simple answer should be for Jonathon to apply to become a taxi. But the city taxi licensing process has a “good citizen” provision and his conviction probably stands in the way.

But the irony is Quincy’s Mayor, John Spring, has talked publicly about the perils of drinking and driving. During his latest mayoral campaign, he even offered to pick up some young adults from the bars if they needed him.

This group of young professionals, YP Quincy, made the lack of local late night cab service in Quincy a cause celeb for a moment. This group, which has been lauded by local bureaucrats and the mainstream media for its formation, was absent during the “Courtesy Rides” debate, which lasted for about a month.

But a man who was making a difference, a man who was keeping hundreds of drunks out from behind the wheel each weekend, was told red tape was more important than saving lives.

A newly-elected alderman, Republican Dan Brink, was decided to take up this issue and ask the city’s legal and police department to consider amending the city’s code. Brink, who previously worked as a probation officer, was uncomfortable with Jonathon’s past, although he said the main reason he was doing this was to determine if he was a business.

Jonathon started “Courtesy Rides” because the cab company wouldn’t run pick up anyone after 1 a.m., which is when the taverns close, and people who went to the late night clubs were certainly out of luck as they are open for another two hours on weekends.

City Attorney Tony Cameron said when “Courtesy Rides” was one man and one car, it was his opinion in February it wasn’t a ‘for hire’ business. But Cameron also said that with more advertising and adding a van and a bus, “Courtesy Rides” comes “perilously close to a smell test as for hire.”

Quincy Police Chief Rob Copley also said the addition of more vehicles and making shuttle runs besides those late-hour bar calls changed things.

“I don’t think we’d be standing here if (Schoenakase’s) mission hadn’t changed,” Copley said.

But his ingenuity, his providing a service to those in need, was met with resistance. A Democratic alderman, Steve Duesterhaus, said “Courtesy Rides” needed to be regulated for “public safety” reasons with the licensing of his vehicles and background checks for volunteer drivers. The irony is, the regulation of this enterprise causes an even greater harm.

Did the city ask the lone cab company or the other shuttle services which it licenses to step up? Were they told to stay open to handle the weekend rush of people leaving the bars and instead of fumbling for their keys they fumble for their cell phones and call someone for a ride? No. Not a word.

The Quincy Police Department even conducted stings against “Courtesy Rides” to make sure he was indeed a voluntary service. QPD didn’t find any time where Jonathon or one of his volunteers asked for payment.

The need to regulate outweighing the city’s public safety. Bureaucracy in action.

Now some local conspiracy theorists will say that is because the city likes the revenues it gets from DUI’s. Copley takes great offense to this theory. He says he doesn’t want “drunks” on the streets.

Another disturbing result of this action is that the law now casts a wide net over other enterprises, including some courier services. What is disturbing is city officials say they will not go after them. They will only go after the “renegade cab companies”. Spot zoning for law enforcement.

Jonathon and his young attorney, Ryan Schnack, plowed into the bureaucracy head-on. The new ordinance proposed by the city’s attorney, Andrew Staff, took an overbroad stance on the legal term “consideration”. They claim that Jonathon’s service will now fall under their definition of “for hire” and thusly after the vote be enforceable to fines of an ordinance violation or attempt to prove his “good character” and become a taxi service and regulated under the City and State’s Taxi statutes.

On September 21st , during the ordinance’s second reading, the agenda heated up to force the vote on Jonathon’s fate. During this debate, the City hung its hat on the newly defined and refined city ordinance and ignored impassioned pleas to allow Jonathon to continue to operate.

One woman, Amy Zornes, lost her teenage daughter in a double-fatal alcohol-related crash just outside Quincy in April. She spoke from the heart about how she wished her daughter had called Jonathon.

“Nobody wants to be in my position,” Zornes said. “But kids won’t call their parents because they don’t want to get in trouble. They can call Jonathon.”

When Zornes finished her impassioned plea before the City Council, complete with blown up pictures of her daughter’s crash scene, she was publicly brushed off by the mayor.

“You really didn’t address the ordinance change,” was all Mayor Spring said.

The lead of the local Mothers Against Drunk Drivers chapter then said she wished every town had a “Courtesy Rides”. She wasn’t treated quite as rudely. Maybe because she was in a wheelchair.

The young attorney was asked by the City Council to provide documentation of conversations he had with various state agencies who Schnack claimed had told him they didn’t see a problem with “Courtesy Rides”. But the state agencies wouldn’t provide Schnack with any documentation, probably because no bureaucrat in Springfield wanted to stick their neck out for this.

Schnack asked Staff, the city’s attorney, to join in on a conference call with one of the state agencies to discuss the matter and Staff told Schnack he “didn’t have time to mess with” the matter.

Jonathon also didn’t provide documentation of proper insurance to the City Council. He said he went through GEICO and didn’t have a local agent who could appear with him at the Council meeting. I guess the gecko or the cavemen wouldn’t do.

So Quincy, Illinois has an ordinance changed that could put more drunk drivers on the street and expands the tentacles of government. This ordinance is now so broad that a person who takes money for carpooling kids to school on a regular basis could be breaking the law.

One of Quincy’s quirky qualities is that “Main Street” is spelled “Maine Street” as several streets in the center of town bear the names of states. Quincy’s city hall is located on Maine Street and while the street name is unique, what is happening in its city hall is all too common.

A man finds a niche. He provides a service. He is succeeding. He has come a long way from prison and his past.

Or so he thought.

The big government crowd will tell you this is a case where regulation is needed. But this is a classic example of government overreach. It’s the nanny state in full effect.

If a Quincyan doesn’t think Jonathon is safe, if they don’t like his record or his ride, they don’t have to call him.

But now it doesn’t look like they’ll have that option. Let’s hope they have someone else’s number handy.

The mayor’s office is 217-228-4545. After all, he offered.

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