Bruce Maiman

Viewpoints: When overreaction leads to an unnecessary bill

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Apr. 2, 2013 - 11:40 am

Sometimes, a story with assorted moving parts leads you to an unexpected conclusion. Over the weekend I shared a tale with a gathering of friends on how well-intended ideas can become bad law.

A 21-month-old boy at a child-care facility stumbled and fell. He hit his forehead and sustained a cut requiring 10 stitches. The parents sued, claiming negligence.

Two years passed. Then, last month, the parents contacted Channel 3 (KCRA) and a story aired, entitled, "Cal Family Fitness incident raises child-care questions."

At this point, an out-of-town house guest said, "Lemme guess: Someone decided we needed a law."

Sure enough, state Sen. Leland Yee had already issued a press release for Senate Bill 766, proposing "standards for child-care services at malls, stores and fitness centers."

The San Francisco Democrat chairs the Senate Human Services Committee, which oversees the department licensing day care centers. Unlike full-time facilities, ancillary child-care centers like those at Cal Fitness are exempt from even basic safety standards because parents and guardians are on the same premises where the day care is located.

"All we wanted to do was put some basic standards into place," Yee's chief of staff, Adam Keigwin, tells me, saying KCRA's story prompted the proposal.

"Yee's law is all based on our story," Cal Fitness CEO Larry Gury says, "But we exceed everything he's got in his bill," a point KCRA acknowledged in a follow-up report on Yee's proposal.

Keigwin counters that "where they fall short, and what this bill wouldn't allow for, is if several workers call in sick, oftentimes they just take a worker from someplace else in the gym and fill in for the day. That person hasn't gone through a background check."

Not so. Whether they work specifically in child-care areas or not, Gury tells me that "all Cal Fit staffers are required to be trained in first aid, CPR and AED (automated external defibrillator) certified in both adult and child safety." Yee's bill requires only one staffer be trained in pediatric first aid and CPR.

Yee's bill requires that anyone over 18 monitoring children have a background check and that at least one staffer be over 18.

"We do a thorough background check on every employee," Gury says. The company hires no one under 18 precisely because thorough background checks on them aren't possible.

Additionally, California law already requires that employees for such facilities undergo specific California Justice Department background checks via an organization called Trustline.

Gury feels he's being made the poster boy for SB 766 because Yee overreacted to a story he saw on the news. Indeed, Yee's Bay Area field representative, Dan Lieberman, tells me SB 766 "actually came out of that very (Cal Fitness) lawsuit. The senator heard about that and felt this would be a good point to put in some common-sense regulation."

Just a minute: The lawsuit hasn't been settled. Gury wants to go to trial, which is scheduled for June. If the lawsuit proves without merit, as Gury believes, shouldn't that dictate whether a law is necessary?

Has anyone in Yee's office toured a Cal Fitness child-care facility or seen the surveillance video of the incident in which the little boy fell? I have. Gury says Yee's office only contacted him after he appeared on KFBK with talk host John McGinness last Wednesday. Apparently, a visit to a Cal Fitness facility is now being scheduled.

At our weekend gathering, my neighbor's 25-year-old son, Ian Adams, chimed in. A law student home on spring break and preparing for the bar exam, he rolled his eyes in exasperation: "Usually you form a task force to determine the need for a new law instead of proposing one based on an isolated incident."

Funny, McGinness called it an isolated incident, too.

Ian then pointed to the scar on his forehead he got as a little boy when he fell at school, gashed his forehead on a 2-by-4 and received 10 stitches. I've known Ian and his folks for eight years and never knew this.

You can't even see the scar.

I turned to his mom: "Did you sue the school?"

"Of course not! He fell."

Yee's proposal doesn't sound terribly unreasonable, but it seems more a product of our own design. This problem doesn't need government intervention; it has a built-in free market solution. What parent would leave his or her child with a poorly supervised day care center? What business would risk not providing basic safety standards?

Sometimes I wonder if free market solutions fail because we fail to avail ourselves of them. We get lazy, cut corners, ignore details, even when it's easy not to. Or maybe it's just easier to blame someone else.

Are we free market practitioners or unaccountable citizens? Because one can get us less government; the other often doesn't. Guess which is which.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio show host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.

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