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COLUMN

If you can do the crime, you can do some time -- shoveling snow

City Council has overlooked one possible way to keep sidewalks clean

Saturday, April 5, 2014 - 6:22 am

When individuals can't or won't meet their obligations, government often attempts to fill the void. But it's at best an imperfect solution, because no amount of bureaucracy can substitute for a family, job or personal responsibility.

Five City Council members' month-long effort to find a legislative solution to property owners' failure to keep sidewalks clean of snow is just the latest example because, for all their good intentions, the councilmen have never seriously considered an obvious – and socially just – approach.

If there's a good side to the explosion of the welfare state it's that people who owe something to society should be expected to give something back to the people whose taxes help pay for the food, clothing, shelter and other needs. I suppose the ACLU would object if the unemployment office handed able-bodied people a snow shovel along with their check (although that wouldn't really be much different that some of Roosevelt's New Deal programs), but the same can't be said for enlisting the help of people whose penance for breaking the law should include some kind of public service.

It's already happening, in fact.

Allen County's Community Corrections department helps those who have been convicted of crimes, many of them recently released, become productive members of the society they have wronged. As such, many of its participants are often seen throughout the community doing various kinds of work – including removing snow from the sidewalks of county-owned bridges.

With the City Council's snow committee this week seemingly limiting its immediate goal to keeping downtown sidewalks clean, couldn't Community Corrections crews be directed to step in when property owners fail to do their jobs?

County Commissioner Nelson Peters said nobody from City Council has approached him about the possibility, but said “It's an excellent idea. But it's not as easy as it sounds.”

The problem, Peters said, is that Community Corrections crews must be coordinated, supervised and transported, all of which costs money. And because firms and agencies usually pay a minimal amount for Community Corrections' crews, it would be difficult to clean sidewalks for free – even as a public service.

Some city officials are reportedly concerned about liability issues, but the cost of using Community Corrections or similar agencies could be less than some of the alternatives now being discussed. If the city is going to fine property owners who fail to keep their sidewalks clear, somebody is going to have to write, administer and collect the tickets. If, as was suggested this week, Neighborhood Code inspectors enforce a snow ordinance the way they do laws regulating the height of weeds, those inspectors will have to be paid.

As I said, personal responsibility and love of neighbor represent the best approach, and the snow-removal issue is not a simple one. But as a principle, this is a good one worth exploring: Those who break society's laws or rely on its generosity should find a way to give something back.

Book is painful, but necessary

In my 37 years as a journalist, I can think of only one column I wish I had never written. And, wouldn't you know, it's been highlighted in a new book.

Vietnam veteran Doug Sterner, his wife Pam and co-author Michael Mink have just written “Restoring Valor: One Couple's Mission to Expose Fraudulent War Heroes and Protect America's Military Awards System.” Prominent in the 273-page book (Skyhorse Publishing) is the story of Carl John Pequignot, who was the subject of a 2011 column in which I recounted how veterans groups and Sen. Richard Lugar's office were considering him for a possible Medal of Honor because of his exploits in some of the bloodiest Pacific battles of World War II.

Piquignot, 84 at the time, claimed to be a three-time Purple Heart recipient who had fought on Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and displayed many official-looking documents and even a sword supposedly given him by President Harry Truman as proof.

But after my column was published, several veterans questioned his claims and provided official military records showing the Navy veteran did not leave the country until late 1945 – after the war was over – and the Allen County Council of Veterans Organizations concluded Pequignot's story was bogus. The Journal Gazette, which profiled Pequignot after I did, also later questioned his story and is also mentioned in the book.

Pequignot has always insisted his story was true, that the official record is somehow wrong. But “Restoring Valor” documents, in great detail, that his “convoluted” tale of heroism was but one of the growing number of fairy tales that have tried to steal the valor of those who earned it, often at the cost of their lives.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.