Above the Law
The Worst Little Town in America: Coburg, Oregon
By Scott Rohter February 2013
When I was a young man in my early twenties I drove all the way from Chicago to the Deep South… right to the heart of Dixie. The year was 1971. I had just lost my job at the United States Post Office.. Yes in those days there actually was a United States Post Office! The Vietnam War was winding down, and my selective service lottery number was way up in the mid 300’s so there wasn’t any chance that I was going to get drafted. I had just graduated from High School about a year earlier and I was very lucky to get hired right out of school by the United States Post Office. It was somewhere around Christmas time. That was my first real job, and after a one year stint as a letter carrier, which was one of the best and at the same time one of the most boring jobs that I have ever had in my life, I bought a brand new 1971 Volkswagen bus with the money that I saved, and this young, naive northern boy headed straight for the heart of Dixie on my very first adventure in life. I was young. I had long hair. And I was from Chicago, which had recently been the home of the Democratic National Convention in 1969, and the well-publicized Chicago riots caused by the Chicago Seven and the infamous Students for a Democratic Society. But I was no radical hippie. On first blush I might have looked like a radical hippie, but I was not even interested in politics back then.
My selective service number in the lottery that year was going to be one of the last numbers that would be called and so with the war winding down, in the summer of 1971 I purchased my brand new Volkswagen bus and I headed straight for Alabama eager to see the rest of the country. I modified the van so I could sleep in it while I was on the road and with great fanfare and expectation I bid my parents good bye. It was the first time that I had ever gone so far away from home. There were people along the way that I met, and things that happened to me during that trip that I will never forget as long as I live.
One of my strongest memories which has stuck with me over the years was that of being chased around in the warm summer rain in the fading hours of daylight by a Mississippi State trooper for no apparent reason other than that I was a young kid from Chicago with long hair! I had pulled over to the side of the road to catch some shut eye so I was asleep in the back of my bus when a Mississippi police officer rapped sharply on my window and ordered me to get out of the vehicle. I was on my way to Birmingham or Jackson as I recall. He put me through one of the most unusual encounters with the law that I have ever experienced in my life, up until recently that is.
“Let me see your license, registration, and proof of insurance,” he demanded sharply… It all started out pretty normal enough just like my most recent encounter with the law in the little town of Coburg, Oregon did. After he made sure that there were no outstanding warrants for my arrest, he ordered me to continue standing outside in the rain while he made a beeline for the rear of his patrol car.. What I am about to tell you next actually did happen. It is 100% true. From out of the trunk of his patrol car the officer pulled a large towel that had been rather tightly wound and he came back swinging that wet towel while telling me that I better start running for my life..
Then he proceeded to chase me back and forth around the bus snapping the wet towel as he ran after me up and down the road and into the woods that lined the side of the highway. When he chased me as far as he wanted to, and he was well satisfied with himself he got back into his patrol car and drove away much to my relief. His sudden departure was just as unexpected as his previous departure from professional conduct was to my amazement. Eventually I returned to my van, and drove as far away from there and as fast away from there as I could. But I will never forget this experience of being chased around in the fading light of day by a police officer who was literally intent on beating me with a wet towel. The message was clear however… I was not welcome there! And this brings me to the real reason that I wrote this story, The Worst Little Town in America. I have never personally experienced such a lack of professionalism by a sworn officer of the law except for three or four other occasions in my life which I wont fully go into… The latest of these incidents however occurred recently in the little town of Coburg Oregon, a place that I call the worst little town in America.
Coburg is nestled in the mid-Willamette Valley. The primary product of the Willamette Valley is grass seed, not marijuana but Oregon rye. Many of the area’s residents are farmers… the salt of the earth… But it looks to me like Coburg is diligently trying to earn the title of the worst little town in America. Here is why, but first a little background might be helpful. For the past three years I have been building my dream home in the country. Currently it is without running water. As a result sometimes I have to take a shower before I go home at night. Usually I do that at my health club, but when I don’t make it to the health club on time I have been resorting to a certain Truck n’ Travel along Interstate 5 in the little town of Coburg where I have been using their showers once or twice a week for about a year now… A shower there costs twelve dollars believe it or not and I have been paying regularly one or two times a week for almost a year as I continue to make slow but steady progress on my house. Over the months I have gotten to know some of the truckers who stop and fuel up at the Truck n’ Travel on a daily basis and I have become friends with some of them … Each time they fuel up, in return for spending $800 on fuel they receive a free shower pass. Since they don’t ever use their shower passes because they are local drivers who make it home every night, they were happy to give them to me. That was the beginning of my problems with the Truck n’ Travel and it was also the beginning of my problems with the little town of Coburg Oregon
The owner of the Truck n’ Travel didn’t appear to be very enamored over the idea of any truckers giving me their free shower passes which they received for fueling up there… Neither did the National Truck n’ Travel headquarters offer me any assistance at all when I complained to them that their local franchise was making me feel unwelcome there … They totally supported their franchise owner’s right to make whatever decision he wanted to make regarding the shower policy.. This particular Truck n’ Travel is located at 32910 E. Pearl Street in the little town of Coburg Oregon. Coburg is a small bedroom community located just north of Eugene Oregon along Interstate 5. It has a population of about 900 people. It is approximately one square mile from side to side and top to bottom. It has one traffic light or I should say or that it had only one traffic light for as long as anyone could remember until recently. Now it has two traffic lights. It just installed a new one right near the freeway… So now the town has two traffic lights which is the same as the number of police cars that it has.
This small town police department has been warned before by the Oregon Legislature not to use its police department to write traffic tickets along Interstate 5 just to generate money for the town coffers. In the past as much as 80% of the town’s revenue has been derived by writing these questionable traffic tickets along Interstate 5. Today the Coburg Police Department is still generating about 40% of the town’s revenue through its municipal traffic court. The normal amount of a city’s budget that is derived from writing traffic tickets is usually about 4%. What they call traffic court in Coburg is actually a freshly painted outbuilding in the middle of town where judicial services are contracted out to a hired Judge who comes down once a month and sets up his sham court right in the center of town just like an old English rottenborough. The city council and the mayor pay this professional legal hit man to set up his sham court and then pronounce everybody guilty who has been issued a traffic ticket in the last month. After invariably finding them guilty of whatever offense they are accused of, the judge orders them to pay their fine to the town of Coburg in a timely manner… I sat through the entire court docket on the day that my case for driving without the required lighting was supposed to be “adjudicated.” To put it rather politely adjudicated is quite a little stretch of the word.
Apparently the town of Coburg is misusing its authority once again.. They are acting like they are above the law.. They must think that the law exists only so they can raise money to fund the town’s grandiose wastewater treatment facility just north of town. Their police department is being misused once again, to troll around late at night or in the wee hours of the morning looking for lucrative prey and a potential new source of revenue to fund the sewer plant. How do I know this.. I know it because I got stopped late one night on my way home. Then they harassed me and cited me for an equipment violation for failing to have an operating headlamp on my truck after it had hit a deer.
Coburg is the little town that dreams of being a big city. That is why they started building a large wastewater treatment facility just north of town even though the town’s residents are about evenly split over the issue of development. They have torn up the streets and left them in shambles, and now they have essentially run out of money to finish the project. Many residents of Coburg would prefer that their little town of Coburg remain pretty much the way that it was. But Mayor Jay Pudewell says that the wastewater treatment facility will be built (regardless of what citizens think). I like a strong mayor who knows how to take charge don’t you?… He reminds me a little of Benito Mussolini who took control and assured Italian voters that all of the trains in Rome would run on time.
When the town’s cash cruiser stopped me for having the smashed fender and the broken headlamp, their police officer who was out driving for dollars late at night didn’t even bother to look at the damage to the front of my truck. He just wrote me a ticket for the inoperative headlamp in spite of my protestations that I hit a deer, the parts were on order, and my truck was scheduled to be repaired by the body shop next week…After the citation was issued I still figured that when I went to court with the pictures showing the evidence of the collision, plus a copy of the repair order showing that my truck had been fixed, that the ticket would be dismissed. I live 40 miles out of town.. The nearest grocery store is 40 miles away. This isn’t rocket science. Driving for me is a necessity. I need to use my truck everyday for the purpose of working. This ticket shouldn’t have been written, and it would have been dismissed in almost every other court in the land, but not in the worst little town in America, Coburg Oregon!
The judge pronounced me guilty and told me to pay the clerk. “How much time do you need to pay your fine,” he asked… I said a lot because I AM NOT GOING TO PAY IT! “Fine” he said, “Then you can appeal it”… That will cost you even more as I found out later… “I am not paying that either” I told the mayor in a later phone conversation. “What do you want me to do,” he asked. “You don’t punish somebody for hitting a deer do you, especially in Oregon where deer are everywhere?” The purpose of writing traffic citations is to modify improper driver behavior patterns. Just what improper behavior of mine is going to “improved” by writing a ticket citation and fining me 160 dollars for basically hitting a deer? That ticket shouldn’t have ever been written in the first place! Who writes you a traffic ticket for hitting a deer, or kicks you in the butt when you are down on the ground? Well I guess we know the answer to that question now don’t we… The little town of Coburg, which doesn’t have enough money to finish building its wastewater treatment plant!
I have known for quite some time that the law is a business like no other. But writing traffic tickets amounting to 80% of a town’s annual budget, or even 40% of its budget, and misusing its Court, or instructing its sworn police officers to write bogus traffic tickets just in order to help pay for its municipal wastewater treatment plant is a whole different crock of shit, literally!