Thursday, January 10, 2008


I’ve been in Valier almost ten years now and have been attending town meetings fairly regularly for a couple of years. But I didn’t lose my temper -- didn’t even speak much -- until last night. There were two causes: first, that the town council (NO citizens present to speak of) had a little meeting before the regular meeting to pass a new ordinance about zoning. The second was that when I asked about why we even need a new ordinance (in a little village of 350 people, mostly related) I was told it was to “get rid” of an old man who had been living in a camp trailer on a residential lot. This was described as a shocking circumstance that destroyed the property values of the empty and run-down lots next to him. The fact that he’d moved away and sold the trailer and lot was not relevant. “We don’t like him,” was the bottom line. In other words, the policy of resentment: we make laws against anyone we don’t like. Or interpret the laws to hurt our enemies while holding ourselves and our friends safe from prosecution for one reason or another. This is what makes me say we have not left our high school years behind.

Though, in truth, no one on the council (two members have just been elected) seemed very interested or concerned about zoning. The ordinance was clearly from somewhere else: it restricts “apartments for servants” on the second floors of garages. I can’t bring to mind any garages with second floors, much less servants -- unless one counts house-cleaners like my neighbor. I think she’d be upset at being called a servant!

The zoning appears to have been thought up by the mayor and city employees. If the the homes of the mayor and at least one city employee were in Portland, OR, they would be out of compliance because of trashy yards and/or living in an old house trailer. The mayor says she's not responsible and directs all complaints to her husband.

Last summer the village employees went about ordering low status people to do this or that. My friend Hans had to move his grass cuttings pile out of the “alley” which was hard to tell from the rest of a vast empty lot. He makes part of his living growing potatoes and bush berries there and would soon have composted the grass. They nearly forbade him to run the soaker hoses that keep his plants alive, but gave him a variance. They outlaw soaker hoses because “we can’t tell when people are using them.” Control is the primary concern.

But behind that was another issue. After a decade of pretending there was no problem, the hundred-year-old infrastructure of the village can no longer be ignored, mostly because of the high prairie water shortage. As usual, budget constraints have been relieved by shirking maintenance. So an engineer was engaged to study the problem. He says we need a new water tank (in addition to the old one), a new 8 inch main down Montana Street (which runs past my house and was partially dug up last summer in order to put a liner in the sewer) plus new mains on three other streets which have inadequate feed, and a new well. We have four wells in various states of disrepair and nonfunction, mostly because they are fifty to a hundred years old and because the water table has sunk so low. Of course, we need “community input.” It will arrive when the community realizes water meters are inevitable and it will NOT be mild. (The engineer had some fascinating videos of the insides of the well -- stuff falling off in the insides, stuff sticking out from the sides of the bore.)

Another consultant was hired at $30,000 to manage all that community input the state requires. She comes up from Helena and mailed questionnaires to everyone. They are the worst questionnaires I’ve ever seen, clearly ripped off from someone else’s working check list, probably some kind of bureaucrat with access to state records. It asks things like “Is the WIC program adequate?” Who knows? I don’t know any of the people or even IF there are any people in this town who receive Women Infants and Children assistance, much less whether it is enough to be adequate. Most people have gone through briefly, putting checks according to guesses.

Similarly, they ask whether the education system is doing a good job. In Valier that means, “Is the basketball team winning?” I’ve never seen a curriculum. They certainly don’t publish standardized test scores. I wrote a long addendum about bus service, laundromats, and the like. The well-dressed young woman who is “doing” this questionnaire did not include all that I said -- maybe fifty per cent. She handed out a “so far” compendium of remarks. Evidently she didn’t like some of the things I said or worried someone would be offended. If she left off half of my answers, what happened to those of other people? This is a “let’s-not-do-it-and-say-we-did” kind of deal.

I lost it enough to shout but not enough to curse, thank goodness. And I was quiet for the rest of the meeting. The poor engineer -- engineers are notorious for avoiding emotion -- almost had his hands over his ears and would not meet my eyes. The Mayor’s husband sat in the back of the room, looking slightly menacing. He is an EMT and had to leave on a call halfway through the meeting. The Mayor was so upset that she said she “couldn’t go on without a hug” from a child who came with her mother, one of the outgoing city commissioners. Clearly this was true. She would not speak to me or look at me after the meeting. I hope I don’t need an EMT while her husband is on duty.

I often get comments on these blogs sympathizing with the horrors of living in a small town. There are also rewards and mitigations. Maybe it’s time for me to pay my dues by getting more involved. We’ve got a circle going here: no one wants to be on the town council because the problems are so difficult and people are so impatient about them, so the council never feels empowered to be effective. Many of our citizens are old and think of other people as children to be chastized and ordered around. We used to have someone who went door-to-door visiting them but she got old herself.

We have not had a state or county government very interested in village-level problems. Now they mandate these “surveys” and “reports” that are so complex and major that it seems worthwhile to pay $30,000 for someone to write a grant for money to fix the wells instead of just using the $30,000 to fix the wells. Of course, those middle-level buffer businesses are cleaning up. And they don’t even have to guarantee their work or meet any state standards, except for the engineers. When people are no longer involved directly, they are happy to hand off to someone else without ever realizing how much cost there is or how much they could actually participate in the outcome. Thus, the slogan around here is often, “you do something and then I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.” And that gives rise to the Zoning of Resentment.

I have very little to do with teaching anymore, but when I’ve subbed it was obvious that no authority figure had any credibility. I’d say something. The students looked at the people among them whom they thought were smart or successful, and if those guys seemed to think it was probably right, the rest of the class went along with it. Everything was complicated by them needing peer confirmation all the time and sometimes their “smart” or “successful” people were wrong or simply in a bad mood. That’s another reason I say we’re operating like high schoolers.

Maybe I’ll be one of those “smart guys” and begin to deal direct with state bureaucrats to see what they actually say, instead of a second-hand version from the Mayor or some consultant.

PS: I did not know that the Mayor's charismatic and talented father had just died until I'd already written and posted this blog. No wonder she was thrown a bit off-stride, needed a hug from a child and support from her husband. Such is the nature of a small town that she may have thought we all knew about her loss, but I didn't. I don't know whether I'd have shown more restraint if I had. I'd have tried harder. Anyway, sincere condolences to her for her loss. She is an intelligent, competent woman who longs for a village that is a little closer to her ideal.

1 comment:

prairie mary said...

So far we've identified three properties in Valier that have or could have apartments over their garages. One belonged to the very wealthy lady who was trying to be a check-writing part of the town and was on the town council. She left for Spokane when she adopted a baby girl from China and hired a Swedish nanny. The plan was for the nanny to live in the garage apartment.

Prairie Mary