Odd Sacramento Laws

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In ancient Rome, it was illegal to wear purple. Needless to say, that would not be a popular law in Sacramento Kings country. Times change, people change, and we expect the law to keep up.

And it usually does, except when it doesn’t. When you’re a city that’s more than a century old like Sacramento, a few oddities are bound to be lingering through inattention in the mustier pages of the city code.

So, out of curiosity, I decided to go spelunking to see just what I could find. Sacramento’s Municipal Code (SMC) did not disappoint. Here are the three most interesting artifacts I uncovered…

Comics Generally: No Laughing Matter

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Pictured: Not a violation of SMC 9.12.010 … yet.

Kerpow! Bang! Zing! Many young boys and girls love reading superhero comics. Judging by box office receipts, the exploits of Marvel and DC’s caped crusaders are fairly mainstream American entertainment these days. I mean, who doesn’t like catching up on the latest of Spider-Man’s amazing adventures, or Wonder Woman’s derring-do, or Black Panther’s virtuous acrobatics?

Well… the City of Sacramento, apparently.

According to Sacramento Municipal Code (SMC) Section 9.12.010,

“It is unlawful for any person to distribute … for use by persons under the age of eighteen (18) years any … comic book … which depicts… the crimes of arson, assault with caustic chemicals, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, kidnapping, torture, mayhem, murder, rape, robbery, theft or voluntary manslaughter.”

That’s right, in Sacramento it is illegal to sell (or even give) a minor any superhero crime-fighting comic book. So if Batman and Superman, in the comic pictured above, were to leave the basketball court for one second to stop a bank heist … verboten! The law was enacted in 1949 to, of course, protect “children of tender years.”

Interestingly, Sacramento was ahead of the curve on this moral panic: by the 1950s, concerns that comics were corrupting the youth would lead to bans across the country and ultimately prompted the industry to self-regulate by adopting the Orwellian Comics Code, which censored the storytelling of the next several generations of comic writers and illustrators.

So, next time you’re stopping by Oblivion Coffee & Comics or Big Brother Comics, just know that you have entered a wretched hive of scum and villainy that should probably have bouncers at the entrance.

Misplaced Expectations on Expectorating

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Pictured: Gaston, upon reading SMC 9.04.040, probably.

Speaking of cartoons. Those of us who grew up in the 1990s, or raised children growing up in the 1990s, will remember Gaston, the cleft-chin villain of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast who is 90% pectoral muscles.

Girls: For there’s no one as burly and brawny…

Gaston: As you see I’ve got biceps to spare…

Lefou: Not a bit of him’s scraggly or scrawny…

Gaston: That’s right! And ev’ry last inch of me’s covered with hair!

Do you remember, though, his distinguishing talent that earned the admiration of the village ladies? He boasts, “I’m especially good at expectorating — Ptooey!” To which the crowd cheers, “Ten points for Gaston!”

Now, you may be thinking, expecto-what? Expectorating is a fancy way of saying “to spit.” And it’s illegal. So illegal.

That’s right. While Gaston’s ability to launch his saliva to great distances earned him the admiration of his peers in his “poor provincial town,” in Sacramento it would earn him a citation.

Specifically, SMC 9.04.040 provides that:

“No person shall expectorate … on any sidewalk in the city.”

This law, by the way, is ancient in city terms. I trace it at least as far back as 1896 in the city codes. (Necessary aside: demonstrating that Looney Tunes was really a PSA, another ordinance from that time, since repealed, prohibited throwing banana peels on the sidewalk!)

Spitting is of course unsightly, and might even be considered rude, but it seems pretty Victorian to prohibit what comes naturally to baseball players and 15 year-old boys. Obviously, Sacramento would not actually enforce this law.

Except that the City does! To my great surprise, from 2014 to 2016, the city issued five citations for expectorating. So, mind your Ps and Qs out there, and tell Gaston he’s probably better off staying in France.

Skee Ball: The Silent Killer

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Pictured: Pure, Unregulated Chaos without SMC 5.48.010.

You may be thinking at this point that old-timey Sacramento, when most of these laws were passed, did not want people to have any fun. You are correct.

Okay, okay, so Sacramento isn’t quite the town that banned dancing in Footloose, but we do require a lot of special licensing for recreational activities that don’t seem to pose any special health or safety risk. For example, does your business have a coin-operated pool table? That’s a ($700!) license (SMC 5.20.010). How about four or more arcade video games? You better believe that’s a license (SMC 5.12.010).

Some of these decades-old licensing statutes are delightfully hyper-specific. For example, did you know that it is illegal in Sacramento, per SMC 5.16.010, to practice, without a license, “the business or art of astrology, palmistry, phrenology, fortune-telling, cartomancy, clairvoyance, clairaudience, crystal gazing, mediumship, prophecy, augury, seership, or necromancy”? So remember kids, when you want to pay someone to help you talk to the dead, make sure you insist upon a city-licensed necromancer. Because quality matters.

But my favorite license required by the City of Sacramento is for the privilege of operating a skee ball machine (and other “mechanical amusement devices”). Skee ball is the popular arcade game where you roll balls along a curved ramp and try and get them to land in rings assigned with different point values. You know the one.

What tickles me is not so much that you need a license to have a skee ball machine, which is admittedly pretty odd in itself, but the strict regulations that licensed skee ball machines must conform to. Behold. Under SMC 5.48.010, it is illegal, in Sacramento, for any skee ball machine:

  • to give “the player, for actual play, only one ball;”
  • to charge more than “twenty-five cents” per game; and, the kicker,
  • to reward high-scoring players with “coupons or tickets.”

To review: one-ball skee ball? Illegal. Charging 50 cents for skee ball? Still illegal. Giving kids tickets for scoring 200+ points that they can turn in for erasers? Oh, most definitely illegal.

The Chuck E. Cheese animatronic rat is probably sweating right about now.

The skee ball law dates back to 1954; why it was needed, I’m not sure. But I choose to believe that a councilmember at the time visited a licensed crystal ball-gazer, who foretold of a dark future involving a dystopian children’s restaurant that enthralled the youth with ticket-spewing machines and singing giant animal cyborgs, and he said “not in my city, not on my watch.” (But, he failed, there’s a Chuck E. Cheese’s on Arden Way.)

The Lessons of Time

So, what to take away from all this? Well, first and foremost, don’t open that Old Sac Comics & Skee-Ball Fancy Arcade you’ve been dreaming of, the one with the period-appropriate sidewalk spittoons. Just a bad idea.

Second, City leaders might consider revising three sections of the Municipal Code…

But, third, we should all begin to think of policy obsolescence as a natural process and consider how to manage it. Sacramento is not unique in having some dated laws in its code. It could have been far worse. Just a few years ago, progressive-minded Oakland discovered that it still had a 131-year ban on cross-dressing on the city books.

The truth is that any city that’s more than a generation old is at risk of finding archaic, unhelpful, and/or deeply embarrassing laws in place. But even older laws that are not obviously out of step with the times deserve periodic revisiting, if only to ensure they are working.

One way to do this is to build studies and sunset dates into newly-enacted laws. This builds in a period of calm reflection, after whatever excitement caused the law to be enacted has passed. But, this approach is probably too administratively burdensome to put in place for every law; moreover, policy obsolescence often takes a generation or more, generally beyond any reasonable sunset date.

A more promising approach might be to mimic the state. California has a permanent Law Revision Commission whose mission is to review state statutes “for the purpose of discovering defects and anachronisms in the law and recommending needed reforms” to the Legislature. A local commission could take a deep dive into the SMC without the City Council itself having to devote inordinate time to the task. The city code is also much shorter than the state’s statute books, so a local commission might meet for just one out of every ten years. Some other California cities, like Roseville, have similar decennial commissions to study and suggest clean-ups to their city charter.

And just think, if we did set up a commission, it is entirely conceivable that kids could buy comic books in Sacramento by 2030!

 

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Skee ball image credit: Scott S

Sacramentality’s Summer Book Club

Alas, summer is upon us, the mercury is headed north and many of us are headed east to the mountains or west to the beach to escape Sacramento’s sometimes squelching heat. Since we will all need a book or two to read as we fly or drive to our destinations (or if we are instead staying home, to kill time while the networks are all on reruns), your friends at Sacramentality thought you might appreciate a recommendation or two, so we enlisted some of our friends, civic leaders from around Sacramento, to provide them. Feel free to share your thoughts and your own recommendations in the comment section and be sure to log your books at the Sacramento Public Library’s Summer Reading Challenge.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suziki

Robert Nelsen
President, Sacramento State

A closed mind, an expert’s mind, is not open to innovation and experimentation—a closed mind does what it has always does.  Today’s world’s problems cannot be solved doing what we have always done. We must be open to possibilities and to change.”

The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu & Douglas Abrams

MulvaneyJoyPatrick Mulvaney
Chef and Owner, Mulvaney’s B&L

“Two old friends talking about love and happiness. And needling each other at the same time, a great read.”

Channeling Patrick’s recommendation both Councilmembers Angelique Ashby and Eric Guerra say The Book of Joy is at the top of their summer reading lists.

The Wisdom of Sundays by Oprah Winfrey

Angelique Ashby
Councilmember, City of Sacramento

“The Wisdom of Sundays is my all time favorite inspirational book. I have read it many times, loaned it out, given it as a gift and recommended it to anyone who will listen. Each time I read it I imagine myself having coffee with Oprah and asking her tons of questions about what she has learned in all her interviews and experiences over the years. This book feels like advice from a friend. It’s inspiring and hopeful and honest. Easily my favorite reread.”

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Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

Rivkah Sass
Executive Director, Sacramento Public Library

“The gods are at it again. Hermes and Apollo wonder if animals imbued with human intelligence and communication skills will be happier at life’s end or if that intelligence will simply lead to misery. Fifteen dogs in a veterinary clinic and readers everywhere are given the opportunity to find out.”

Good to Great by Jim Collins

Rhonda Staley-Brooks
Executive Director, Nehemiah Foundation & President Sacramento State Alumni Association

“My favorite book is authored by Jim Collins, Good to Great.  What is even better, there is a smaller version for us Do Gooders, Good to Great for Social Sectors!  Collins states ‘The difference between successful organizations is not between the business and the social sector, the difference is between good organizations and great ones.’”

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The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael E. Gerber

IMG-6287Isaac Gonzalez
Tahoe Park & YMCA Advocate/Gadfly

“I read this book once a year, because even though I work mostly in the non-profit space, there are many good practices and processes that successful businesses use to create efficiencies and scale up. High recommend it to anyone who feels like they’re working hard but not moving in a positive direction or encountering too many setbacks.”

Big Plans By Bob Shea

Joe Wagoner
Vice President, Sacramento Republic

“I have a five year-old daughter and seven year-old son. Most of my recreational reading revolves around ‘Big Plans’ By Bob Shea. In fact, that book was a contributing factor to the creation of Republic FC. That read is much more interesting than my numerous recommendations about sports business analytics!”

Although perhaps we are usually short on opinions, the Sacramentality team offered some recommendations of our own as well:

Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford

Devin Lavelle
Parks Commissioner, City of Sacramento & Senior Researcher, California Research Bureau

“Light enough to consume at the beach before swimming, split into bites that can be enjoyed despite interruptions, Tim Harford tells the tale of how inventions as diverse as barbed wire, infant formula, double-entry bookkeeping, leaded gasoline and index funds have fundamentally transformed the world we live in in ways most could not imagine. Whenever I pick up this book, ideas begin simmering about the way different ingredients transformed the recipe that is modern life.”

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1984 by George Orwell

Caity Maple
Ann Land & Bertha Henschel Memorial Funds Commission Commissioner, City of Sacramento & Lobbyist, The Quintana Cruz Company

“Be eerily reminded of elements of the current political system, and keenly aware of our tendencies to follow rather than lead. A great read and reminder of the power of opening our eyes and taking a look around!”

The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History by Norris Hundley, Jr.

Kevin Greene
Ethics, Transparency & Good Governance, City of Sacramento

“The History of Water in California is the history of California. This is a fascinating, and surprisingly quick read at almost 800 pages, that thoroughly and clearly describes the water wars, (politically, legal and violent) and how water has shaped California and its population growth.”

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

Devin Lavelle
Father of Boys

As the author I’ll choose to exercise a point of personal privilege here and recommend a second book as well. Every night my oldest son Henry picks two books to read before bed. One he chooses frequently is The Lorax and I love that among the last words he hears before drifting to sleep many nights is, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

With that, I leave you with a short poem and my sincerest apologies to Dr. Seuss:

So catch! Cried Sacramentality, as we let something fall.
It’s a list of books.
The best books of them all!
Choose a new book. Read it with care.
Read it near water. Or in a room with conditioned air.
Read it online. Protect it from hackers that hack.
Then the autumn and all our wonderful weather
may come back.

 

Summer Book Club Supplement

In addition to her recommendation, Councilmember Ashby shared with us her entire summer reading list from last year, which we thought our readers might enjoy:

“My favorite summer read last year was First Women. I read this one over our family vacation along the California coast. It was fantastic. If you are at all curious about the type of relationships First Wives of our Presidents have with each other and with their staff and their husband’s staff, this book will be a delight.

The stack of books (plus First Women) is my summer reading list from last year. All are great. I recommend any of them – it just depends on what you’re looking for.

I like Nicholas Sparks when I want to read a love story or cry or disappear into fiction (I like Jennifer Weiner too for that purpose – but I didn’t read any of her books last year, probably because I have read most of her work already).

Calm is another great book to read and reread – it will help you feel relaxed (there is a companion meditation app to this book, also called Calm, that is a fantastic tool for slowing down and taking note of all that is happening in our lives).

Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up is great (better than you might think). I am already a bit of a minimalist so this book speaks to me – but it’s worth a read if motivation to organize and reduce clutter are on your to do list.

Little Book of Lykke is a study into happiness across countries and communities with analysis of what makes neighborhoods happy. It’s interesting and full of creative concepts from across the globe. I enjoy these type of reads because they feed my desire to think beyond our current measures.

All of these books are good reads for different reasons. Each one fed my spirit in one way or another. Should you choose to take one in, I hope it does the same for you.”

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