PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. -- The government of this fiefdom south of Phoenix claims that when it approved Dale Bell's blueprint for his Western-theme restaurant with an outdoor stage in an enclosed courtyard, it assumed the stage would be used for mimes or poetry readings. Mimes in Arizona scrubland? Poetry at the San Tan Flat Steakhouse and Saloon? The authorities were, they insist, shocked when country music broke out, and they are scandalized because some customers, not content to tap their feet to the Western beat while they eat, get up and dance.
Foot tapping is, so far, still legal in Pinal County. Outdoor dancing is not, at least at a dance hall, and Pinal says San Tan Flat morphs into one at certain points on certain evenings, when customers dance and Bell does not make them stop. He thinks the U.S. Constitution's protection of self-expression encompasses the right to (in the language of his brief to the county court) "sway, shuffle or even dance."
Pinal's harassment of Bell is a small provincial spat but it illustrates two large themes of our national history. First, democracy requires judicial supervision to thwart the excesses of elected officials. Second, governments closest to the people are -- never mind what sentimentalists say -- often the worst. This is because elected tyrants can most easily become entrenched where rival factions are few.
Singer Lee Alexander, who on a recent night sang his melancholy ballad "You Can't Dance Outside," says he has seen Sandie Smith, one of the three county supervisors (all of them Democrats), at another Pinal steakhouse where people dance outdoors. No one remembers when, if ever, Democrats did not control Pinal, which was created in 1875. Bell, 58, who served in the Reagan administration, calls himself "a Ron Paul guy."
He opened a steakhouse in his hometown of Spearfish, S.D., sold it and opened another in Sand Creek, Wyo., then decided, with his son Spencer, now 17, to open one here. The board of supervisors warmly approved. Soon after it opened in November 2005, however, the trouble started.