Should it be illegal to stand in a flower box to make repairs to your business sign? Or to put rock salt on the sidewalk in winter? Or toss popcorn among the plants to feed the birds?
Those might sound like silly questions, but those exact issues have turned into a running six-month battle between city officials in Angola and a local businessman who has so far had to post $30,000 in bonds to get out of jail.
It started when Angola decided to beautify its downtown circle with new brick sidewalks and concrete planters.
Though a lot of people will say the results were beautiful, not everyone agreed with the project. One of them was Dana Thompson, whose family has operated the Strand Theater on the circle in Angola since 1974. The 61-year-old Thompson, like some other business people, protested that the project would eliminate 17 parking spots, something a city shouldnt do when its trying to revitalize the downtown.
The protest didnt matter when the project was completed last summer, but Thompson continued to have issues. Among them was that the concrete planter installed just under his theaters marquee made it impossible for him to replace burned-out light bulbs.
So Thompson said he started taking stone pavers and putting them in the planter to provide a firm base for his ladder. He says he always removed the pavers when he was done.
Meanwhile, Thompson said, people would throw cigarette butts in the planter, and when hed find them on the sidewalk, hed just toss them in the planter too.
Finally, Thompson said that if a customer left a bag of popcorn in the lobby, hed dump it in the planter for the birds to eat. Hed always done that with old popcorn, and so did his dad, Thompson said.
Last August, Angola police came to Thompsons theater about opening time and arrested him, charging him with four counts of criminal mischief, which is deliberately destroying someone elses property.
He was accused of damaging plants as well as throwing trash into the planter.
The evidence included videos. The city had placed a camera in a window of nearby City Hall and for an extended period recorded everything that happened in front of Thompsons theater.
After the arrest, Thompson posted $2,500 bond.
Then, in December, Thompson was arrested again on two counts of criminal mischief. One of the charges alleged that he had again dumped popcorn in the planter, and that he had used rock salt on the sidewalk in front of his theater and thrown some in the planter. The citys argument was that rock salt would stain the pavers so he had to use a different material to melt ice. Part of the evidence against him was photos of pieces of rock salt on the ground. This time, bond was set at $25,000.
According to police reports, videos showed Thompson stepping on plants in the planters, kicking at plants and pulling plants up before he put stone pavers down in the box.
Thompson believes the arrests relate to his earlier opposition to the downtown beautification project.
If youre not in favor and toe the line, youre an enemy of the state, Thompson said.
Thompson, who doesnt deny most of his actions, defends putting pavers down in the planter to keep his ladder stable.
When I go up on a 12-foot ladder, whose safety is more important, me or a plant? he asks.
Meanwhile, no more salt has ended up in his planter than in anyone elses, he said. Salt trucks spray it onto sidewalks and into planters. Other business owners shovel snow from their sidewalks and parking spaces and pile it up in the planters. That all contains salt and trash.
But Im the only one in town with a $30,000 bond, he said.
I spoke to Angola Police Chief Stuart Hamblen. He says the city planner gave Thompson a ladder that he could use to reach his marquee, but Thompson quit using it and started using his pavers and damaging plants. The videos the city took clearly show him stepping on plants, Hamblen said.
All this – constant video surveillance, $30,000 in bonds, a bunch of Class B misdemeanor charges against the owner of a downtown business open for 37 years – over what appears to be oriental grasses.
It does sound silly, doesnt it? Hamblen said.
Yes it does, and a little outrageous. Feeding the birds is criminal mischief? Salting the sidewalk with the wrong material a crime? Stepping on a plant is a crime?
When its all over, it will be interesting to see how much this will cost compared with the original beautification project.