Editorial: When regulators get aggressive, it’s bad news

Mats Järlström might be giving the state of Oregon a black eye over a yellow light.

He’s gotten international news coverage, including a recent story in the New York Times and reports by other prominent news organizations, after a state licensing board fined him $500 for calling himself an “engineer” after he began a crusade to make traffic lights remain yellow longer.

Järlström lives in Beaverton and the series of events that led to the fine have all occurred north of us, so this might seem to have little to do with Sweet Home. But the principles at stake here are worthy of our attention.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, Järlström’s story actually goes back several years. He’s a Swedish immigrant who earned a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering before emigrating to the United States. He and his American wife live in Beaverton, where he is self-employed as a consultant for audio and electronic testing equipment.

Järlström’s foray into the world of traffic signals began in 2013 after his wife got a $260 ticket from the city of Beaverton after she was busted by a red light camera.

When appealing the fine, on behalf of his wife, Järlström got himself into trouble.

He studied the calculations used to determine the length of the yellow light cycle and concluded it was too short, because it failed to account for the longer time a driver needed to turn a corner, rather than going straight through the intersection.

Järlström went to city officials and proposed a new mathematical formula for yellow lights, arguing that the yellows at the intersection where his wife got the ticket – and others in the city – were too short.

He says he was laughed at.

He eventually contacted the state Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, described himself in an email as “an excellent engineer.”

Whoa.

The board said that, by doing so, Järlström was guilty of the “practice of engineering in Oregon without registration” and earlier this year fined him $500.

“Järlström applied special knowledge of the mathematical, physical and engineering sciences to such creative work as investigation, evaluation and design in connection with public equipment, processes and works. Järlström thereby engaged in the practice of engineering under state law,” the board ruled.

It should be noted that Järlström has not taken this lying down. He initially filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2014, arguing that some cramped Beaverton intersections present a public safety issue for both pedestrians and drivers.

A federal judge rejected that argument and dismissed the case.

So now Järlström is suing on free-speech grounds, arguing that the engineering panel is violating his First Amendment rights.

Frankly, he may be right, and it’s disturbing that it’s come to this.

As a number of news accounts have noted, Järlström is not the first to run afoul of the engineering board. They’ve gone after bigger fish.

Former gubernatorial candidate Allen Alley stated in a campaign ad that he was “an engineer and a problem solver,” prompting an investigation by the board.

The same thing happened to Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who described his background in a voter’s pamphlet as an “environmental engineer.’’

Both of these men have worked professionally as certified engineers, but weren’t licensed in Oregon.

There are other cases, just as concerning, that we don’t have space to recount here.

We wrote some years ago about some of the more seemingly intrusive, if not foolish, requirements for licensing in Oregon and a reader rightly respond with a letter point out that there are very legitimate reasons for some licensure requirements. We’re not debating the important benefits of certification for, say, building contractors or medical doctors – or engineers. We’ve all heard horror stories about people being victimized by quacks, or worse.

But this isn’t an issue of professional advertising. Every one of the cases above involve individuals who actually have college degrees in engineering and have practiced professionally in some form or fashion, but they weren’t advertising their services.

Yes, there are serious free-speech issues.

At the risk of sounding reactionary or paranoid, there is a very real danger when state agencies begin to push the boundaries of their authority, and that’s clearly what’s happening here.

When it becomes a legal risk to even mention that one is experienced in engineering in the context of discussing the operation of traffic lights, or running for political office, that’s excessive.

Granted, these are engineering-types may see things more in black and white than some of us who struggled to pass math class. But there are constitutional issues here, in all these shades of gray.

Oregon’s elected leaders are ultimately responsible when bureaucrats step out of line. Whether or not they have created the environment in which overreaches occur, they are responsible for correcting them.

Otherwise, citizens may be forced to respond – at the ballot box.

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