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Door-to-door sellers

Oct 16, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

As the city considers an ordinance, questions need to be asked and answered

For the second time in recent memory, the Riverton City Council is considering drafting a new ordinance to regulate the activity of door-to-door sales workers in the city limits.

That the issue has arisen again so soon is seen as evidence that it may be time for the city to take formal, codified action.

The council has not been an activist group, reflecting a general philosophical bent toward keeping government small and regulated intrusion limited.

Knowing exactly when to put a new law on the books is one of the delicate challenges of government at any level. Elected representatives can feel more confident in proposing and passing a statute, a code or an ordinance when several factors exist. First, is the issue being addressed really a problem for society, rather than simply an observation or an irritant? Does the issue affect a significant number of people in an important way, or is it likely to in the future?

Is there a legislative response, or its equivalent, that could address the matter productively? Would the new rule actually solve the problem without causing another one? For example, would regulating one type of door-to-door selling infringe upon the activity of another type that does not draw complaint? Wording can become important in such cases.

Is a new ordinance the only way, or the strongly preferable way, to solve the problem? Could the issue be addressed in some other fashion, for example, through full enforcement of existing rules, changes in personal behavior by citizens, public education, or more money for current policies and programs?

Is the new law enforceable? Will adequate resources be provided for enforcement? If not, will the deterrent quality alone be enough to do the job?

Would a real benefit to society be shown? Will the public accept it willingly, thereby making it sustainable over time?

Will the new regulation's effect be the same as its intent? Of all the problems encountered by rule-making bodies at the local and state government levels, this may be the most common one.

Few, if any, rules, ordinances or statutes could meet all of these stipulations. There may be no such thing as the perfect law. But the better ordinances meet more of the requirements. The weaker laws meet fewer of them.

In the case of door-knocking sales people, the council has on its side, apparently, a fair amount of public objection to the practices of the door-to-door sellers. There are private property issues involved, which always play well with the public. There are legitimate business concerns being raised by brick-and-mortar firms that exist in town, that own property, that employ workers, that pay taxes, and whose owners and their families are registered voters.

Years ago, the Wyoming town of Green River became the standard bearer for a nationwide code of conduct for itinerant or temporary sales people. The resulting Green River Ordinance became a model for municipalities of all sizes across the United States. The heart of that rule is the requirement that door-to-door salespeople or sales forces must be licensed by the city government before they begin their work. Perhaps that would be a good place to start in Riverton.

Whatever the council decides, attention ought to be paid to the community sales efforts of the Scouts, Little League players, band members, etc., who engage in a time-honored practice of community fundraising distinct from the classic "traveling salesman" who might affect business conditions and offend property owners in ways that a little girl with a clipboard and a cookie list would not.

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Riverton City Council