Is There Any Hope for Darryl Watkins? (September 25, 2002)

Pick up any of the papers that are Lake County based, and sooner or later you're bound to find some trace of local arch-conservative Darryl Watkins. His letters to the editor have been a more or less regular feature on the editorial pages of the Clear Lake Observer and Record-Bee, and lately the local Outlook has also become a depository for his literary endeavors. 

Generally, Darryl's themes are rather predictable, and center around his belief that the bulk of disorder in our community is due to his brand of Christianity not being adopted and practiced by enough of his fellow citizens. His enemy list commonly features gays and lesbians, people who are pro-choice or believe that women can have meaningful lives outside their biblically-designated role of domestic servant, and anyone who doesn't do everything in their lives in accordance with his concept of proper Christian guidelines. More recent additions to his enemies list are school administrators who don't believe in corporal punishment, and those Satan-worship promoting Harry Potter books.

So it was a bit of a refreshing surprise that he recently took a break from picking on the people and things he believes God doesn't care for, and went off on a new tangent, that of defender of our personal liberties. This came about as a result of his objections to a plan promoted by the Clearlake City Council ordering yearly inspections of residential rental properties in the City of Clearlake, which was passed by the council and will be in effect in the not-too-distant future. Supposedly, this new regulation is the brainstorm of city administrator David Lane, who seems at times to be more a director of city policy than someone charged with implementing it. In fact, the general impression around town is that the council works for him, rather than the other way around. Whatever the case, there is a very harmonious relationship between the generally corrupt and clueless city council and its emperor-like administrator, with signs of rancor and dissent between the two being very rare indeed.

Now one can applaud Darryl for taking Mr. Lane to task for any number of plausible reasons, but the one issue Darryl has homed-in on is the new rental inspection ordinance, which has to be one of the most shallowly examined local controversies in recent memory. Darryl says that Gestapo-like rental police will be barging into the homes of Clearlake's down-trodden masses and poking around looking for God-only-knows what, and that this constitutes a huge invasion of our privacy and civil liberties. (Oddly enough, Darryl has not publicly voiced any complaints about Mr. Ashcroft.) Mr. Lane and the city council claim that it's the only way to get landlords (and particularly absentee landlords) to keep their rental units in some kind of habitable and presentable condition, and that the cost will be covered by a relatively small yearly fee, paid for by the landlord.

The opposition to the plan came from both sides of the rental equation, with landlords and tenants making a considerable fuss about the proposal at a couple of different council meetings. The renters didn't want people invading their privacy, and had a well-founded mistrust of the motives and agenda of the City of Clearlake. The landlords were upset that they would have to pay a small annual fee, and were worried that they may have to bring various aspects of their units up to building code compliance. Supposedly, the inspections were to focus on three main chronic areas of concern: kitchens and bathrooms (due to the problematic nature and importance of functioning plumbing), making sure the yard wasn't full of trash or other eyesores, and health menaces.

But that wasn't the whole story by a longshot. Not mentioned by the renter contingent was the fact that many of them didn't want city employee-types rooting around their hovels due to their embarrassing lack of housekeeping skills and obvious signs of illegal drug use, either of which could trigger unwanted contacts with CPS or the police — maybe both. But the renters had another concern that was shared with the landlords, and that was: What if the city said, “This dump is condemned”? That would be bad news for the renter, who would be forced to move into a shrinking and therefore more expensive rental market, and would possibly mean the landlord would have to pony-up more cash to either get the unit back into the renting business or demolish it. Also, scores of backyard trailers and illegally converted sheds and garages would be eliminated from the rental market permanently, sending scores of families packing.

But there's still more to the story, and that's the way many rental agreements are crafted at the lower-end of the rental market. For many tenants, there is no written rental agreement whatsoever, and all payments to the landlord are made in cash. So what we have here is a classic example of the “gray market” economy in our own backyard, with a huge amount of monthly rental incomes going straight into the landlord's pocket without making it onto the IRS radar screen. How much money are we talking about? Figure the city has 3,000 rentals at an average of $500 each (probably low on both counts), and half were “off the books.” That adds up to $750,000 a month in the City of Clearlake, and that figure has been termed reasonable by one of the most knowledgeable and respected members of the Clearlake business community, so it's probably not too far off the mark. This situation becomes evident on a regular basis when landlord/tenant disputes erupt, and the renter gets the “sorry pal, you're SOL” story because they can't even prove they have a home, let alone a right to habitable one.

So now we have an unusual condition, one where the bad guys are doing the right thing (for seemingly the right reasons), and the other bad guy attacking the right people for the wrong reasons, making it damn difficult to know who to root for. The one thing that's working normally is the local news media, who has done a predictably fine job of not being able to do any serious reporting or analysis of this still unfolding story.

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