Government “Scrooge” Ruining Breast Cancer Victim’s Christmas, by Christopher Burger

The Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was a wealthy, mean-spirited man who lacked Christmas cheer. He was so consumed with his business that he failed to understand the importance of spreading good cheer and compassion.

As every schoolchild should know, after visits from the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future, Scrooge had a change of heart. He embraced the spirit of the Christmas season and treated others with kindness and generosity.

Kay Leibrand of Palo Alto, California, a 61-year-old breast cancer sufferer, is not a Dickens character, but right now is hoping that the Scrooge in her life – local government officials – will change their hearts as well.

Leibrand is being threatened with up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000 for violating the city’s “visibility project,” which is intended to increase the visibility of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists in this San Francisco suburb. Leibrand is being charged with violating a regulation stating that bushes in strips of grass between the street and the sidewalk of a property must be shorter than two feet. Anything taller is considered a public nuisance.

Leibrand’s 30-year-old bushes already are pruned substantially for safety reasons. No injuries or accidents have ever been caused by her shrubs. The stop sign at the corner near her house has never been obstructed. Motorists at the corner can see approaching traffic for at least a block in each direction.

Significantly, under the law, if the city is displeased with the height of property owners’ shrubbery, it has the right to cut the bushes to the required levels and bill the owner for the work. In Leibrand’s case, however – and only in her case – the city instead filed a criminal complaint. Thus, Leibrand may go to jail.

Leibrand wonders why she has been the only person criminally charged under this ordinance, noting that others in the city, including city council members, also have bushes over two feet high. None are being threatened with a jail sentence.

Leibrand is spending this holiday season fretting over her upcoming February trial. Just as Christmas Carol readers worried if Tiny Tim would have food on his plate, Leibrand worries that she may be incarcerated. The Palo Alto government has played the role of Scrooge nearly perfectly.

Although it’s unlikely any ghosts will visit Palo Alto government officials this holiday season, Leibrand is still is hoping they will have a Scrooge-like change of heart. Dickens’s miser was rightly viewed with contempt. So too, should government officials who consider jailing a breast cancer sufferer over the inconsequential height of a bush. The Christmas season is no time for a “Bah! Humbug!” attitude. Kay Leibrand should not have to endure the holidays with fear.


Christopher Burger is a program director for The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.