The Blame Game


At 6:05 p.m., on August 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge near the University of Minnesota suddenly gave way and fell into the Mississippi river. This event was quite unexpected. Should the public reaction be, on one hand, to regard the bridge collapse as an “Act of God” beyond human prevention; or, on the other hand, to find particular individuals responsible for catastrophic neglect and send them off to prison?

Between these two extremes, there is a continuum of possibilities. Surely the knowledge of bridge conditions should have spurred corrective action. Yet, it would have been difficult or even impossible to predict that the I-35W bridge would collapse this year.

This newspaper represents the owners and managers of small businesses. First, let’s get the “blame game” off our chests. As private-sector landlords, we are aware of how city government responds to any misfortune that involves our properties. Its officials self-righteously beat their chests and vow to take action to see that a similar calamity never happens again. This is accompanied by the stigmatization of private-sector landlords and onerous, sweeping inspections. The “act of God” possibility never crosses their mind.

For example, there was a fire in a rental property near the University of Minnesota campus several years ago. Most likely it was caused by a careless smoker. A spate of negative publicity about the owner of this property appeared in the media, followed by stepped-up inspections of all properties in that area. Similarly, in St. Paul, a fire in an over-crowded apartment caused several deaths. The mayor and city council vowed to crack down on “bad landlords” and make sure that occupancy requirements were followed.

We are all for reasonable changes in inspections policies and procedures following such calamities. We are not for smug condemnations of the property owners as if such persons willfully caused the accident. Some accidents are, indeed, an act of God. They could happen to anyone. But we should all try to learn from mistakes, willful or otherwise, to minimize such things in the future.

Government also manages certain functions. What happens when an accident occurs on their watch? The collapsed I-35W bridge is one example. The devastation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina is another. The damage in either case far exceeds that taking place in privately owned apartments. The calamities were far more preventable. Government officials knew for years that the New Orleans levees could not withstand Level 5 hurricanes. The I-35W bridge had known structural deficiencies.

Now for the cheap shot: If government officials are so self-righteous and unforgiving about accidents related to private rental property, why should not private-property owners and others be equally unforgiving about apparent neglect of government functions? Do as done unto you. In other words, pour on the blame.

Point the finger at the person in charge - the Governor, the legislature, the head of MN DOT, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, or whoever - and demand vengeance when something bad happens on their watch, like the I-35W bridge collapse. That’s the political way of dealing with such problems.

This, too, would be an overreaction. There is always a mixture of negligence and innocent error in such situations. It would be well to be relatively nonjudgmental while taking additional precautions in the future. But again: What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If government officials pitilessly blame others any time a horrendous accident occurs so also will they be blamed.

So how is the “blame game” being played with respect to the I-35W bridge? There is a fellow named Chuck Repke who regularly posts on the St. Paul and state e-democracy forum. Most recently, he pointed the finger of blame at Governor Pawlenty for not making road and bridge repair a priority in the state budget. He is a former top aide to St. Paul City Council member Dave Thune although he cutely notes that his postings do not reflect the opinion of any of his present or past employers.

In a recent posting, Repke wrote: “Governor NO MORE TAXES AND LET THE RABBLE DIE was just on the tube claiming that the bridge was given a ‘clean bill of health.' He knows that what he was saying is as full of crap as he is. This is the result of Minnesota not raising the gas tax in years. The Governor has now directly killed people by his policies.”

This may be the same Chuck Repke who, when some people died in an overcrowded apartment building in St. Paul, wrote of greedy landlords who do not care if people are burned to death in their buildings so long as they receive their rent money, preferably in cash. Repke suggested that this was the attitude of the “Property Rights” people.

As a member of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, I responded by saying that I didn’t know any landlords like that. To whom was he referring? Repke then replied that he would not name individuals because we landlords were quick to sue people. (There are, in fact, three St. Paul landlords suing the city for real-estate racketeering.) He was too clever to fall into my “trap”. So that’s how the discussion went.

Repke, a DFL operative in St. Paul, is quick to play the “blame game” for partisan political advantage. Many politicians are. Any human tragedy is fair game for government officials wanting to seem “proactive” on such problems, and therefore immune to criticism. An advantage they have is that government functions are spread out among many persons and departments, thus allowing one official to point the finger of blame at another. Private-sector landlords, by contrast, have only themselves to blame when anything goes wrong with their properties.

The more honest and dignified approach would be to acknowledge that mistakes happen. You do not have to be a demon to be associated with such things. To one degree or another, especially in hindsight, we are all lazy or cheap. We are all prone to making mistakes. That said, the mistake-maker has an obligation to “learn from the mistakes” and make reasonable changes in procedure to try to prevent them from happening again. In this case, we’d better pay closer attention to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and put more resources there.

In listening to politicians, officials, and others talk about the I-35W tragedy in front of the television camera, I could sense the blame game starting to take shape. I could also sense the blame deflection. There were those who purported to see a “silver lining” in this tragedy. There were those who mentioned the superb teams of responders and medical personnel and the well-crafted emergency-response systems that had been practiced many times. There were those who referred to the “resilient spirit” of Minnesotans and how this community was “pulling together” in the face of the bridge collapse.

In my opinion, the most eloquent of the speakers was Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan who sugarcoated nothing. He pointed out that thirty or forty people were still missing, presumably somewhere in the Mississippi. (Fortunately, the current number is much lower.) He referred to the dying trapped inside their cars who had passed along a final message to their loved ones. This event was simply a tragedy. It was an act of God.

-- And the Praise Game

August 9, 2007

Letters to the Editor
Star Tribune
425 Portland Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55488

Dear Editor:

Other than the fact that the Star Tribune wishes to puff Rocco Forte (a city bureaucrat), I can’t see the point of your article on the Minneapolis Emergency Response Plan. If Forte had memorized a “thick notebook” full of procedures and the plan was carried was carried out flawlessly, good for him and it. So far as I can tell, however, this plan did nothing to save any lives or avert injuries. It was a minor element in the story of the I-35W bridge collapse.

I’m tired of the cult of public officials who give the appearance of knowing what they are doing when a public calamity takes place. The prime example is Rudolph Guiliani rushing around New York streets with a gas mask held to his face after the Twin Towers collapsed. He’s the Republican front runner for President on the basis of that image.

I’d much rather have a cult of public officials who took the necessary precautions to ensure that such calamities did not take place. Even if this is the type of person who would look totally flustered and helpless if tragedy struck, I’d stand up and cheer.


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