Eye on the ball: Washington authorities crack down on guy planting unauthorized flowers

posted at 8:41 pm on June 25, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

We’ve talked about the Washington, D.C. Metro system’s multitude of management, accountability, safety, and general performance problems before.

With those problems nowhere close to solved, Metro is keeping its priorities straight:

Quirky garden artist Henry Docter has been surreptitiously planting flowers in public places on four continents since 1979. His unauthorized beautification efforts have frequently aroused surprise and delight — but never a problem until this month, when he ran afoul of Washington’s Metro transit system.

Metro threatened Docter with “arrest, fines and imprisonment” if he dared to weed, water or otherwise tend to more than 1,000 morning glories and other flowers whose seeds he planted in 176 barren flower boxes alongside the top stretch of the north escalators at the Dupont Circle station.

Metro claims, as the city does in overreaches from silly to abusive to lucractive, that it’s all about safety. The empty flower boxes the city has abandoned are on a steep incline down which Docter might fall, you see. Docter has said he’ll sign a waiver or wear a harness, but no dice. He’s never been clamped down on until now.

“I’ve never gotten in trouble for planting flowers,” Docter, 52, said last week. “Never has anyone overreacted with such an absence of common sense.”

Docter spoke in the first interview in which he openly discussed 34 years of clandestine horticulture. The District resident estimated that he’s planted more than 40,000 flowers in spots ranging from the Israeli Embassy and Navy Memorial in the District to faraway locales, including Argentina, Spain and Cambodia.

He has newspaper clips to support his account. The Israeli Embassy acknowledged that it has tolerated his plantings in security barriers on the street for four years.

Sure, it’s not Docter’s private property, and Metro’s entitled to throw a fit I guess, but a taxpayer planting flowers in the flower beds you haven’t bothered to fill seems close enough to a free public works project we should be able to let it go. Is the objection that the city would rather pay thousands of dollars to do a no doubt crappier job keeping up these flower beds? If nothing else, I love it when a quirky performance artist type clashes with overbearing nanny staters in a neighborhood that may have trouble picking a side. What will you do, Dupont?! Are you going to let this “if it can save one sprained ankle” rationale allow the state to protect us from the dangerous knit bombs and public guerilla art that make yours a community of artistic dialogue and creativity? Fight the power. Teachable moment. There are signs they’re rallying behind Docter.

Note how the government discourages good-faith efforts be honest about one’s intentions and views action by private citizens as sorta fundamentally suspicious:

Ironically, Metro wouldn’t have known about Docter’s act if he hadn’t sent it a polite letter June 3 describing how he’d planted the flowers a week earlier. His letter said he’d like to continue caring for them.

“In retrospect, it was a mistake to ask for permission,” Docter said last week. “After I planted the seeds, they sprouted very quickly. I kind of panicked and got concerned they would interpret it as a weed and destroy it.”

It’s clear that Metro wasn’t paying much attention. In October, Docter planted 150 daffodils and tulips in the same boxes. After they bloomed and died, he pruned the spent flowers and turned down and secured the leaves for future vitality.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said that round of gardening apparently slipped under the radar. “It’s sort of beyond the scope of what you would imagine some private citizen would do,” he said.

Moving onto a national story of petty tyrants and misguided policies squelching creativity. This time, it’s a successful business run by an entrepreneur mom that’s in the crosshairs. Meet Rhea Lana Riner, founder of a children’s consignment clothing business with an innovative model that’s run afoul of some 1938 Labor Department rules. Her events end up looking like streamlined, modernized garage sales that cut down on work and increase profits for parents (they get 70 percent), who are therefore willing to volunteer running the events in exchange. Think a yard sale with a splash of eBay and a dash of crowdsourced disruption. Too disruptive, say labor bureaucrats:

What started as a small family business operating out of our home has grown to 22 states. Now, though, it might all turn out to be illegal, thanks to the bureaucratic thinking of the Department of Labor…

A big part of our success are the hundreds of parents — both consignors and shoppers — who voluntarily work brief shifts to help set up before the sale starts. In exchange, these parents get to shop first with more choices and better merchandise.

In January, though, the Department of Labor noticed all this cooperation going on. Months later, investigators concluded that volunteers are “employees” under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

This means paying the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, filling out IRS paperwork and complying with who-knows-what other rules. And all for a pop-up business that lasts days.

Times are tough and the economy is changing. People who forge new ways of doing business are more necessary than ever. This is a business that serves moms and dads trying to raise families in tight times in a cool, new way, giving them an opportunity to make more money with less work than they might spending an entire Saturday running a yard sale. And, we’re just going to bury that innovation and those parents under a mountain of paperwork, thereby disabling the business model and destroying the exact reason parents like it enough that it’s expanded to 22 states? Brilliant.

Liner offers a funny comparison:

I’ve offered regular parents the same opportunities that eBay gives independent resellers. When I do it in the real world to recycle used clothes, the Department of Labor says no way. That’s bunk. My volunteers are not employees or independent contractors. They’re customers.

By this dreadful logic, Build-a-Bear Workshop employs child labor when it lets its young customers assemble their own teddy bears.

“I’m gonna need a W-9 before you can take Mrs. Honeypaw home. I’m a beary overbearing bearucrat!”

Watch her discuss it on Fox Business:


Photo credit for front-page photo to arenamontanus on Flickr Creative Commons.


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